Medieval Rings

les Enluminures

Gothic RINGS

With the rise of towns and the establishment of a money economy in western Europe, the fabrication of rings grew into an urban trade. In 1180, the Goldsmith's Company was founded in London, and in 1200, Jean de Garlande describes the craftsmen setting jewels into rings on the Grand Pont in Paris. Certain new types of rings evolved and were commercially made in large numbers for all levels of society. In France in 1283, then in London in 1337, 1363, and 1463, and elsewhere, sumptuary laws were passed forbidding townspeople from wearing precious stones, but it is unlikely these regulations were strictly observed.

Medieval rings are typically set with uncut but polished stones (called cabochons) because the stone itself was considered God's creation, not to be altered artificially by man. For the same reason, there was a taboo about the mixing of colors in the workshops of painters and their assistants. Two types of rings abound in the Gothic era. The first is the stirrup ring, made in the shape of a horse's stirrup and nearly always set with a cabochon sapphire. Many of these have been discovered in the tombs of the bishops for whom they were made. The second is the tart mold ring, adorned with different precious stones in a box or circular setting the underside of which resembles a pie plate. Other types of rings also proliferate: for example, nominative rings with circular inscriptions used for sealing, black letter rings with amatory sayings on the bands, iconographic rings with standing figures of saints that served to protect the wearer, etc. Claw and box settings both occur in Gothic rings, but eventually the claw setting naturally evolves into the most popular late Gothic type of gemstone ring, the cusped ring, in which the collet consists of decorated lobes between the remnants of claws. It is this type of ring that continues into the early Renaissance and occurs in Gerard David's painting.

An art history of medieval rings has yet to be written (see, however, Hindman et al., 2007), but a few preliminary observations can nevertheless be made. The streamlined form of the stirrup ring, arching upward to the bezel that forms an integral part of it, recalls the aesthetic of the unification of the wall in Gothic cathedrals with the ribs springing seamlessly to the arched vaults. Tart mould rings take inspiration from the architectonic forms of capitals and their bases. The ridged bezel of the iconographic ring adorned with standing saints in niello reiterates in miniature format the closed wings of a painted altarpiece, its figures painted in grisaille. Iconographic rings, as well as other devotional types of rings, find their parallels in the suffrages, or prayers of protection to special saints that accompany Books of Hours.

Matthew Paris's illuminations of rings

Matthew Paris, thirteenth-century monk and historian of the English monastery of St. Albans, was an avid storyteller and archivist. In writing the histories for which he is so famous, he seems to have felt compelled to add multiple levels of documentation to his work. This is a page from his Liber Additamentorum in the British Library (MS Cotton Nero D. I, ff. 146-146v), dated from 1250 to 1254, which is a book of addenda where he recorded documents and other data to supplement his historical reports.

In this instance, he is recording a list of treasures from his monastery. Rather than a dry and minimal inventory, Matthew has supplemented his descriptions with colored drawings he himself drew, taking special pride in the ancient gems and cameos that the monastery had in its treasury, recording tidbits of gem lore, and noting donors and historical data. These gems would have come to St Albans as pious gifts and may have been intended to be reused to ornament altars, chalices, or reliquaries. Nevertheless, when Matthew recorded them perhaps we may imagine they had been set aside to be admired in part for their antiquarian value. In this case, they bear witness to an exceptionally early example of a collection of rings. Two stirrup rings (one with an initial), several simple gemstone rings, an elaborate cluster ring, and a nominative ring are among the types Matthew portrays, and all of these correspond to surviving examples from the period.

Cynthia Hahn
Gulnar K. Bosch Professor of Art History
Florida State University

For a description of the manuscript, see

On Matthew Paris, see
Cynthia Hahn, Portrayed on the Heart: Narrative Effect in Pictorial Lives of Saints from the Tenth through the Thirteenth Century , Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Suzanne Lewis, The Art of Matthew Paris in the Chronica Majora, Berkeley, 1987.