Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Precious Stones
of Sacred Scripture


Priests of the Old Covenant wore a particularly spectacular garment, one festooned with embroidery and precious jewels. Exodus 28:15-21 describes it:

And thou shalt make the rational of judgment with embroidered work of divers colours, according to the workmanship of the ephod, of gold, violet, and purple, and scarlet twice dyed, and fine twisted linen. It shall be four square and doubled: it shall be the measure of a span both in length and in breadth. And thou shalt set in it four rows of stones. In the first row shall be a sardius stone, and a topaz, and an emerald: In the second a carbuncle, a sapphire, and a jasper: In the third a ligurius, an agate, and an amethyst: In the fourth a chrysolite, an onyx, and a beryl. They shall be set in gold by their rows. And they shall have the names of the children of Israel: with twelve names shall they be engraved, each stone with the name of one according to the twelve tribes.

The Jewish Encyclopedia describes it further:

The vestments of the high priest were interpreted in three ways. The explanation of Philo is as follows ("Vita Mosis," iii. 209): His upper garment was the symbol of the ether, while the blossoms represented the earth, the pomegranates typified running water, and the bells denoted the music of the water. The ephod corresponded to heaven, and the stones on both shoulders to the two hemispheres, one above and the other below the earth. The six names on each of the stones were the six signs of the zodiac, which were denoted also by the twelve names on the breastplate. The miter was the sign of the crown which exalted the high priest above all earthly kings.

Josephus' explanation is this ("Ant." iii. 7, 7): The coat was the symbol of the earth, the upper garment emblemized heaven, while the bells and pomegranates represented thunder and lightning. The ephod typified the four elements, and the interwoven gold denoted the glory of God. The breastplate was in the center of the ephod, as the earth formed the center of the universe; the girdle symbolized the ocean, the stones on the shoulders the sun and moon, and the jewels in the breastplate the twelve signs of the zodiac, while the miter was a token of heaven.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, also explores the symbolic meanings of the stones chosen to adorn the priests:

According to some, the literal reason for these vestments was that they denoted the disposition of the terrestrial globe; as though the high-priest confessed himself to be the minister of the Creator of the world, wherefore it is written (Wis. 18:24): "In the robe" of Aaron "was the whole world" described. For the linen breeches signified the earth out of which the flax grows. The surrounding belt signified the ocean which surrounds the earth. The violet tunic denoted the air by its color: its little bells betoken the thunder; the pomegranates, the lightning. The ephod, by its many colors, signified the starry heaven; the two onyx stones denoted the two hemispheres, or the sun and moon. The twelve precious stones on the breast are the twelve signs of the zodiac: and they are said to have been placed on the rational because in heaven, are the types [rationes] of earthly things, according to Job 38:33: "Dost thou know the order of heaven, and canst thou set down the reason [rationem] thereof on the earth?" The turban or tiara signified the empyrean: the golden plate was a token of God, the governor of the universe.

In St. John the Divine's vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the City stood on a foundation of twelve stones, each correlating with one of the stones of the breast plate. The stones, though, are in a different order -- with the last stone of the breastplate (the stone associated with the tribe of Benjamin) listed first.

Apocalypse 21:19-21

And the foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper: the second, sapphire: the third; a chalcedony: the fourth, an emerald: The fifth, sardonyx: the sixth, sardius: the seventh, chrysolite: the eighth, beryl: the ninth, a topaz: the tenth, a chrysoprasus: the eleventh, a jacinth: the twelfth, an amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, one to each: and every several gate was of one several pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, as it were, transparent glass.

The true identity and symbolism of these stones is a fascinating matter. Sadly, it's one in much dispute due to the ancients' not having precise names for the various rocks and minerals. Below is a table which indicates the names of the stones as given in different texts, and "best guesses" as to their modern identities according to the Catholic and Jewish Encyclopediae.

BP: Breast Plate
FS: Foundation Stone

DR: Douay-Rheims
KJV: King James Version
NIV: New International Version
NASB: New American Standard Bible
CE: Catholic Encyclopedia, 1905-1917
JE: Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906




Hebrew acc. to CE (and JE)










1 6 Arm Sardion Sardonyx Sardius Sardius Sardius Ruby Ruby Red Carnelian, a species of Chalcedony Sard or Blood red Jasper
2 9 Ghtrh
(JE: Ptdh)
Topazion Topaz Topazius Topaz Topaz Topaz Topaz Chrysolite Chrysolite or Topaz
3 4 Brqm (JE: Yhlm) Smaragdos Smaragdos Smaragdus Emerald Carbuncle Beryl Emerald Emerald Rock Crystal
4 3 Gphr
(JE: Nfk)
Anthrax Anthrax Carbunculus Chalcedony Emerald Turqoise Turquoise Oriental Ruby Garnet or Emerald
5 2 Mghry Sappheiron Sappheiros Sapphirus Sapphire Sapphire Sapphire Sapphire Lapis lazuli or Sapphire Lapis lazuli or Sapphire
6 8 Yhlm
(JE: Yshphh)
Onychion Beryllos Beryllus Beryl Diamond Emerald Diamond Beryl, Emerald, or Aquamarine Opaque stone of green color
7 11 lshm Ligurion Liguros Ligurius Jacinth/ Ligurius Ligure Jacinth Jacinth Crimson, red, or orange zircon Amber or Jacinth
8 10 Shbw Achates Achates Achates Agate/ Chrysoprasus Agate Agate Agate Agate Agate
9 12 Ahlmh Amethystos Amethystos Amethystus Amethyst Amethyst Amethyst Amethyst Amethyst Amethyst
10 7 Trshysh Chrysolithos Chrysolithos Chrysolithus Chrysolite Beryl Chrysolite Beryl Topaz Beryl
11 5 Shhm Beryllion Onyx Onychinus Onyx/Sardonyx Onyx Onyx Onyx Onyx, quartz Malachite
12 1 Yshphh Iaspis Iaepis Iaspis Jasper Jasper Jasper Jasper Jasper Ring-stone

Each of the breastplate stones had a name of one of the 12 Tribes of Israel engraved on it, and each, as the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas indicate, is associated with one of the Signs of the Zodiac. Though I've seen endless variations as to which Zodiac sign goes with what Tribe, I list those mentioned in Bullinger's "The Witness of the Stars" (1893).

At any rate, in the days of the early Church, Andreas of Cappadocia Caesarea (A.D. 431-506) associated each of foundation stones with one of the Apostles, including Paul, but omitting James the Greater, and, naturally, replacing the original Judas with Matthias. I don't vouch for the quality of the information in this last column as I've been unable to find his writings for myself, but include what I've found in various internet sources. (Note that sometimes the Tribe of Joseph is not counted, and the Tribe of Levi is often not counted as a separate Tribe. Instead, the Tribes headed by Joseph's sons, Mannaseh and Ephraim, are counted).

After Tribes' names:
(R) born of Rachel
(L) born of Lia (Leah)
(B) born of Bala (Bilhah), Rachel's handmaid
(Z) born of Zelpha (Zilpah), Lia's handmaid







Tribal Symbol (Zodiac Sign)


1 6 Sardius Sardius Carnelian, a species of Chalcedony Ruben (Reuben) (L) Mandrake (Aquarius) Philip
2 9 Topazius Topaz Chrysolite Simeon (L) City of Schechem (Pisces) Matthew
3 4 Smaragdus Emerald Emerald Levi (L) Urim and Thummim (Libra) John
4 3 Carbunculus Chalcedony Oriental Ruby Juda (Judah) (L) Lion (Leo) Andrew
5 2 Sapphirus Sapphire Lapis lazuli or Sapphire Zabulon (L) Ship (Virgo) Paul
6 8 Beryllus Beryl Beryl, Emerald, or Aquamarine Issachar (L) Sun and moon (Cancer) Thomas
7 11 Ligurius Jacinth/Ligurius Crimson, red, or orange zircon Dan (B) Eagle or serpent (Scorpio) Simon
8 10 Achates Agate/Chrysoprasus Agate Gad (Z) Camp (Aries) Jude
9 12 Amethystus Amethyst Amethyst Aser (Asher) (Z) Female figure and olive-tree (Sagittarius) Matthias
10 7 Chrysolithus Chrysolite Topaz Nephtali (Napthali) (B) Deer, stag (Capricornus) Bartholomew
11 5 Onychinus Sardonyx Onyx, quartz Joseph (R) (Menasseh and Ephraim)

NT: Joseph and Menasseh; Dan omitted

Note: Manasses (Menasseh) and Ephraim were Joseph's sons
Joseph: Egypt; sheaf of wheat

Ephraim: Ox (Taurus)

Menasseh: Unicorn; arrows and olive branch (Taurus)
James the Less
12 1 Iaspis Jasper Jasper Benjamin (R) Wolf (Gemini) Peter

For a very interesting and beautiful passage on the meanings of gemstones
-- one which clearly shows the confusion of the matter -- see this excerpt from J.K. Huysman's novel, "The Cathedral."

See also St. Ephraem's "The Pearl: Seven Hymns on the Faith."

And for a literally encyclopedic and medieval view of such things, visit this site's Catholic Library to find St. Albertus Magnus's "Book of Minerals" and the first volume of St. Hildegard of Bingen's Selected Writings.

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