Information about rings in late Antiquity comes from Roman authors, such as Pliny, Martial, and Clement of Alexandria. In his Natural History Pliny states: “... many people do not allow any gems in a signet-ring, and seal with the gold itself; this was a fashion invented when Claudius Caesar was Emperor.” The Roman poet Martial remarked in the first century A.D. he had seen a middle-class citizen wearing no less than six rings on each finger; although under Septimus Severus (died 211 A.D.) a decree was issued allowing each soldier to wear a single gold ring. The Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, discouraged wearing any jewelry at all. However, they did permit Christians to wear one ring, either the seal of their family or the wedding ring; and rings bearing Christian symbols such as fish, birds, and inscriptions of religious character were deemed acceptable.
The types of rings from this period include examples with nominative inscriptions or plain gold monograms for sealing, marriage and betrothal rings, devotional and religious rings, and decorative rings. Some marriage and fidelity rings are expressly related to the formal institution of marriage and its vows. The symbolic linking of the couple that is expressed in the dextrarum junctio, or the joining of hands, persisted from ceremonies from Roman times. One type of marriage ring thus displays two joined hands. Portraits of the bride and groom, sometimes with crowns over their heads (actually used in ceremonies) or a cross between them, also exist in rings. The man is typically portrayed on the left, in the position of greater importance. Such rings suggest that men and women shared an emotional bond and a practical partnership. Other strictly Byzantine examples depict the bride and groom flanking Christ to indicate that he officiates over the union of bride and groom, sealed by his cross. Typical inscriptions include OMONOIA (Concord) and XAPIC (Grace). In the seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote: “The ring is given by the espouser to the espoused either as a sign of mutual fidelity ... therefore the ring is placed on the fourth finger because a certain vein, it is said, flows thence to the heart.”
Other types of rings of the period include decorative rings with attractive gemstones, cameos, and intaglios, sometimes set in beautifully wrought bands made with pierced, twisted, and beaded gold. The excesses associated with the later Roman Empire find expression in two-, three-, and four-finger rings, many made in Alexandria, and in the proliferation of baby rings perhaps not only intended for infants and small children but also meant to adorn statuary as votive offerings. In the Byzantine East, devotional rings like small icons depict frontal standing figures of saints, God the Father, or the Virgin Mary. The love of bright, gleaming colors, so evident in Byzantine mosaics, metalwork, and manuscript illumination, has its counterpart in richly enameled rings.
In the sixth-century church of San Vitale in Ravenna a mosaic in the sanctuary depicts the Empress Theodora accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting entering the church. Two court officials assist her entry. She holds a jeweled decorated chalice in her hands which she brings as a gift to the church. She is dressed in the state regalia appropriate for an empress. Her porphyry mantel decorated with rows of pearls and precious stones and her tall and elaborate crown with pinnacles and long pendants add to her majestic presence. The women of her retinue are part of this public display. They are courtiers, often wives of high officials and aristocrats, who accompany an empress in her public appearances. Dressed in rich silk brocade garments of different colors and designs, they also wear jewelry mainly necklaces of various precious stones and earrings.
The two women closer to the empress also wear rings, which are made of gold with a large green stone set in them, most likely an emerald. Clearly these are a mark of distinction since they prominently hold up their hands displaying their rings. Jewelry always enhanced a woman's physical beauty. A gold ring with precious stones adds brilliance to a female hand at the same time that it communicates her distinguished status. Here the two women wearing the rings stand next to the empress stating their higher position. It is not clear who had access in the sanctuary of this church, but whoever saw the mosaic could immediately recognize the relative hierarchy among the women of the retinue. These two more prominent figures have also more individualized facial features and are possibly very specific women of the court. Gold rings like these were usually worn by aristocratic women. They were expensive and often the type of gift an emperor or empress might give to a woman of the court.
Dumbarton Oaks Professor of the History of Byzantine Art
Ioli Kalavrezou, et al., Byzantine Women and Their World, catalogue of an exhibition, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, distributed New Haven, Yale University Press, 2002.