Coral is a complex marine organism and has a calciferous skeleton. It is sometimes blood red and is vascular in its form. Therefore in Greek legend it was said to be the petrified blood of the Medusa, and subsequently it was even seen as the blood of Christ.
According to early lapidaries Perseus laid the Gorgon’s severed head by a stream and her blood spilled out into the sea where it turned into coral. As a consequence of the Medusa’s ability to turn mortals into stone her image proliferated in the Roman world. In architecture her baleful head was used everywhere against the evil eye; on pediments, frescoes, and, especially on the point of first encounter, the door furniture. On a more personal level Medusa was worn both as cameos and in jewellery in the hope that she would protect owner from every kind of malevolent influence. By extension the Medusa’s blood, in reality red coral (properly corallium rubrem), served the same purpose, and its special magic combined with its attractive colour made it a powerful apotropaic (or protective) symbol.
From birth children were given corals to protect them from the evil eye and particularly from fascination by witches; a belief held in every age but our own because infant mortality was rife. There was no knowledge of bacteria or viruses before the nineteenth century and disease and death were largely accepted as God’s will. The antidote was a rigorous round of prayers and supplications. However, the supernatural was also blamed for apparently random death bolts and hopes were pinned not just on rosaries, crosses, and votive offerings but also on the ancient magic of amulets and talismans. Whatever the source of these maladies, it was obvious that many infant fatalities resulted from lung diseases and other respiratory failures. By strange coincidence the shape of some species of coral is not only vascular but, with their intricate tracery of stems and fronds, mirrors the structure of the trachea and primary bronchials. The unexplained relationship between the two probably intensified faith in the magical properties of this exotic and beautiful material.
One of the earliest known paintings of a coral talisman in wear was made in the 1470s. It is the coral bead necklace and pendant mounted in gold that figures in the Madonna di Senigallia by Piero della Francesca, now in the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino. Worn over Christ’s chest its pattern echoes that of his lungs, but the sanguine colour of the coral may also anticipate his blood at the crucifixion.
Corals worn by children were intrinsically valuable and probably treasured heirlooms and consequently they often took centre stage in portraiture. A striking example is the specimen worn by the infant Baron Capel of Tewkesbury (1638-1696) in The Capel Family by Cornelius Johnson (c. 1640), now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The youngest and therefore the most vulnerable child is positioned at the centre of the painting wearing a red silk ribbon from which hangs a coral talisman richly mounted in gold; there it has almost become the primary focus of the whole composition. The family group was painted in 1640 when belief in the power of witches was still widespread and a fever-pitch purge was soon to get underway in East Anglia. Owing to the intrinsic value of gold only a few talismans mounted in this way have survived but fortunately one, strikingly similar and exactly contemporary with that in the painting, has escaped the melting pot. Pictured at the top of this post, it was made by an unidentified female goldsmith whose mark was a ‘W’ in lozenge-shaped cartouche. This is one of several items coral-related items that will the major forthcoming exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, which will run at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology from 31 August 2018 to 6 January 2019.
In the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the use of coral as a talisman migrated to some extent from the body to the hand, and it was incorporated into baby rattles. There it served a secondary function as a teething stick. These rattles, mounted in silver and gold, were often hung with bells which, like the coral itself, were not simply trivial distractions but powerful amulets in their own right; an example is given centre stage in the anonymous painting Boy with Coral (c. 1670), now in the Stranger’s Hall in Norwich, which is also kindly being loaned to the Spellbound show.
Venus was born of the sea and consequently all marine treasure including shells, pearls, and corals are her attributes. As a love goddess she, and by extension her emblems, are closely associated with sex and procreation and therefore offer powerful varieties of anti-magic in their own right. For the same reason phallic symbols abounded in the ancient world, but shells are the female equivalent and their message is yonic. The place of corals in this cult of fecundity is less obvious but nonetheless they are invariably associated with Venus in art and literature and once again they probably stand for the life force of blood itself. In some instances coral is carved into phallic and yonic talismans and these were especially popular in Italy, and Naples in particular, where the best specimens were found in profusion in the Mediterranean sea.
Another emblem of fecundity is the figa; deriving from the word for fig, this was the ancient slang for female genitalia. The figa has become conventionalized into a clenched first with the thumb thrust through the gap between the index and the middle finger. The sexual imagery is obvious, and in common with the phallus and the yoni the figa became a powerful apotropaic form. Its origins are very ancient and probably derive from the Roman world but, in a rather contradictory way, the figa became especially popular in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Catholic Spain. Then it was carved from all manner of magical materials including jet, rock crystal, and of course coral. In this instance its power was redoubled and it is no surprise that it is often glimpsed within Spanish portraiture, worn on the belts of children, and sometimes (as in the case of other coral charms) mounted in gold and enamel.
Belief in the magic of coral survives even today, although in common with their predecessors few owners ponder its origins and meanings. Their faith in coral is almost always traditional and instinctive. Parents continue to give it to babies and some, like the Capel family four centuries ago, decorate baby clothes and pillows with coral-red ribbons. Evidently the hold that coral has on the human psyche is timeless and enduring. Tellingly, the first gift to the present Queen was a necklace of coral beads; above everything in her unrivalled jewellery collection, it is this modest talisman that seems to have served her the best.
Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft will run at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology from 31 August 2018 – 6 January 2019. Now Booking!