The rings became typologically more varied during the Medieval and Renaissance periods. There were various stories and legends about them, and, of course, they were especially beautifully decorated, and supplemented with some ingenious details. In the Middle Ages many traditions were rooted, for example rings became a popular New Year's gift. In turn, a ring of poison appeared in the Renaissance era ...
What else occurred during this time? Let us explore the second part of the story about beautiful & ancient rings!
Medieval Rings - 'Posies', The Diamonds, Inscriptions & New Year's Gifts
During the Middle Ages jewelry was more than simply a decoration. "In an age when magic, science and religion were interwined, a ring could be worn as a sign of faith, as an amulet or to 'cure' illness. The gift of a ring could, as now, signify love or cement social relations." [1.] In the Middle Ages, they used to give each other gifts during the celebrations of New Year's Eve. As that was a traditional time for gifts, rings were considered the ideal choice for these purposes and their hoops were often engraved with New Year's greetings.
During the Medieval times "rings were worn on all fingers, and one more than one joint."[5.] Many of such rings were simple gold bands with a sentimental or religious inscription decoratively engraved. "Diamond rings were often exchanged at betrothals or weddings. Symbolically they combined the strength and unbreakable quality of the stone with the never-ending circle of the ring." [1.] The documents from the 13th century describe that the diamond ring should be worn on the ring finger, "the vein of which comes directly from the heart".  That was an idea taken from antiquity.
"Bezels became more elaborate, moving from the simple stirrup-shaped rings of the late 12th century to tall Gothic compositions with decorated shoulders. Engraved gems were set as signet rings, used for sealing letters and documents, although versions made entirely of metal were cheaper and more common." [5.] Such rings also "served official purposes: signet rings, featuring either engraved bezels or bezels set with intaglios (carved gemstones), were pressed into warm sealing wax to authenticate documents." [1.] The tradition of mounting intaglios on jewelry continued through the Middle Ages with ancient or Byzantine gemstones featuring incised or engraved classical motifs that were often incorporated into rings. High quality ancient gems, possibly from Rome or Venice, were traded across Europe and sometimes also set in church metalwork or used as personal seals. [ 1.]
During the Medieval era were worn 'posies'- rings with romantic inscriptions, often in French or Latin, the languages spoken by educated people across Europe. Some of such posies reflected more personal feelings. "The motif of two hands clasped in love, known as a 'fede' from the Italian mani in fede (meaning 'hands [joined] in trust', inspired by the Roman device of dextrarum iunctio, or 'clasped right hands'), also appears regularly on medieval jewelry. It was a sign of loyalty and commonly associated with betrothals."[ 1.]
Rings with religious designs or engravings of saints were often worn in Medieval times. Individuals might choose a ring bearing an image of the saint whose name they shared, or because of the belief that each saint could protect against a particular mischance. [1.] Medieval contemporaries believed that a ring's power could be magnified by inscribing protective words and phrases upon the hoop. [ 1.]
The Renaissance. A Variety of Rings
During the Renaissance era the simplicity of Medieval shapes were transformed into "the triumph of Renaissance goldsmiths..."[1.] Cartouches, scrolls, foliage, classical masks and colorful enamels came into the world of jewelry. Rings were set with gemstones, such as rubies, diamonds, sapphires and emeralds. There was a new way to to improve or alter the color of the gemstone by placing a tinted foil behind it. Italian goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini (1500 - 1571) recorded recipes for creating different shades in his treatise on the art jewelry. [1.] Renaissance goldsmiths also took inspiration from the art of antiquity, copying classical motifs and figures. One of the examples could be a delicately carved intaglio of Medusa on the ring design.
Renaissance portraits and contemporary texts show that both men and women wore rings aplenty, from palm to fingertip and sometimes, especially during the first part of the 16th century, rings even peeped through the slashed fabric of gloves. [ 1.] "An inventory of Henry VIII's jewels drawn up in 1530 lists 234 rings, and accounts of visitors to the court show that it was customary for him to wear many at the same time." [5.]
The Renaissance was a new era of discovery and science, therefore the scientific interests of that time resulted in rings which had compasses or sundials contained in their bezels. "With the development of watch-making in the 16th century, rings containing miniature timepieces were also made, particularly in Augsburg." [5.] Rings of that era might have a secret compartment inside the bezel just under the gem-set or even under the enameled decoration, "intended to contain a relic or perfume - or perhaps even poison, according to sinister tales of the Borgias."[5.] Sources say, that "a more venomous poison ring had a spike, though it is difficult to see how this could be worn safely in polite society." [4.]
"He knew, too, that Caesar wore a ring made like two lions' heads, and that he would turn the stone on the inside when he was shaking hands with a friend."
During the Renaissance era rings could serve as a reminders of death. Memento mori
( "Remember you must die") imagery was found also on rings with skulls, skeletons, hourglasses and worms... [1.] Many of such Memento mori rings may appear quite simple at first glance, with only a discreet hinge fitting at the side of the bezel to indicate their complexity. [5.]
As in the previous era seals were used on rings. The signet ring is also of great antiquity, worn as symbol of authority and as proof of identity to corporations and institutions, and usually featured initials, coats of arms, or symbols of the owner. [4.]
"It was not until the 16th century that the wedding ring had an official role in the marriage ceremony. It was originally highly decorated and not at all plain." [4.] "During the 16th and 17th centuries, European husbands bestowed a gimmel ring upon their wives. Similar to the puzzle ring, the gimmel ring consisted of two interlocking bands. The bride and groom both wore one of these bands after their engagement, and the two bands were reunited during the wedding ceremony. Subsequently, the wife wore the combined ring." [11.]
To Be Continued...
References & Further Reading:
1. Church R. Rings. - London: Thames & Hudson, Victoria & Albert Museum, 2017.
2. Newmann H. An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry. - London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
3. Ogden J. Ancient Jewellery Interpreting the past.- University of California Press, 1992.
4. Pearsall R. A Connoisseur's Guide to Antique Jewelry. - New York: Todtri Book Publishers, 1999.
5. Phillips C. Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present - London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.
6. Tait H. (editor). 7000 Years of Jewellery. - British Museum Press, 2006.
7. Taylor G., Scarisbrick D. Finger Rings From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. - Ashmolean Museum, 1978.
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.
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