Medieval Rings

les Enluminures

Early Medieval Rings

Early Medieval finger-rings, or rings from the so-called Migration era, occupy a class by themselves. Distinctly different from those prevalent in Antiquity, they are also of great rarity most likely because they are products of a chaotic period characterized by invasion not cultural fluorescence.

Tribal cultures–the Goths, the Visigoths, the Lombards, the Franks, the Ostrogoths, the Huns, etc.–wore their wealth as they moved from place to place. The persistence of Roman techniques can be seen in the intricate filigree and granulation of their gold work; however as the importance of the stone grew, the prominence of the bezel increased so that the beautiful uncut stone projected high above the finger. Rings of the projecting bezel type are found among the Lombards, the Ostrogoths, and the Franks. Another type, the spiral ring (already a form favored by the Celts), adopted by the Anglo-Saxons recalls the interlace of contemporary illuminated manuscripts. There are braided, twisted, and coiled examples. A small group of Anglo-Saxon rings also preserve niello decoration on flat or articulated bezels depicting mythic beasts, spirals, and other motifs.

In Gaul, the Merovingians preferred a flat bezel on which designs could be engraved, whether they be portraits of the owner such as appears on the famous ring of the king Childerich or complex, difficult-to-decipher monograms, or animals. From the same historical milieu comes the intricate and imposing architectural ring, sometimes adorned with a cabochon garnet at the top of the bezel. The latter recalls on a minute scale Charlemagne's Palatine Chapel at Aachen with its rotunda form, arched galleries circling the central space, and dome. New types of byzantinizing forms, such as cloisonné work, came with the political stability of the Carolingian and Ottonian empires, and it is worth remembering that Otto II married a Byzantine princess.

Much of the evidence for the origins and the dating of Early Medieval Merovingian rings is archaeological. Rings decorated with shaved garnets, for example, come from sites that follow the route of the invasions of Attila the Hun (died 453) from Hungary to Gaul. Sometimes archaeological evidence suggests the gender of a wearer, as in the case of an architectural ring from the Guillou Collection buried in the tomb of a woman. Often, it provides important, independent means of dating, for hoards included dated coins, as well as other items made from precious metals.


Reliquaries in the shape of arms were a striking choice of form for the display and use of precious relics of the saints. They were an apt shape, not because they always held arm bones, but because, in this portable and imaginative form, they could take a vivid and active part in the spectacle of the ecclesiastical liturgy. If saints were the “active limbs” of the “body of the church” this form gave them a presence and place in the life of the church. They could be used to bless, they could gesture or touch, and, furthermore, they could be dressed in sumptuous liturgical garments and ornaments.

Rings were an important part of the liturgical dress of medieval clergy--for example, a bishop's ring was especially precious. The present example is the Arm Reliquary of Saint Blaise (Braunschweig, Germany, Herzog Anton- Ulrich-Museum); made of a wooden core and silver gilt around 1040, it purportedly contains the arm of this fourth-century Armenian saint. Devotees have offered many of their own rings as fitting gifts to this reliquary of the revered saint, and the rings have been displayed on the fingers to show how very “rich” the cult remains. What is especially interesting is to see the types and periods of rings displayed on the arm reliquary. Included are many rings that post-date by several centuries the fabrication of the reliquary, a tart mold ring and a small stirrup ring (thirteenth century), a cusped ring (fourteenth century), a belt ring and even several Tudor posy rings (sixteenth century). The order in which they are displayed on the fingers provides an index of their approximate dates.

Cynthia Hahn
Professor of Art History
Hunter College of the City University of New York

Further reading on reliquaries, see

Cynthia Hahn, in Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in the Middle Ages, ed. M. Bagnoli, H. Kline, and C. G. Mann, Baltimore, London, and Cleveland, 2010; and Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400–circa 1204, 2012.

X-radiography of an arm reliquary, see