Exhibition Review: Treasures and Talismans: Rings from the Griffin Collection

Skull memento mori locket ring
Figure 1. The 17th century British memento mori ring shown here, made from gold, enamel, diamonds, and ruby, has a locket for holding secret messages. From the Griffin Collection. Photograph by Richard Goodbody, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rings, traditionally the most popular style of jewelry, carried heavy cultural and spiritual significance throughout the Middle Ages. Available to all levels of society, both male and female, since they were purchased in the marketplace rather than custom designed, rings became connected to identity, romantic affection, social and ecclesiastical status, and even the nature of life and death (figure 1). Treasures and Talismans: Rings from the Griffin Collection, on exhibition at the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval art and architecture branch, spotlights the relevance of rings to the period. The exhibition, part of a private collection named for the mythical creature that guarded gold mines, focuses on the styles and techniques used in ring manufacture from the early 5th through 16th centuries, along with the wearers of the rings themselves. Themes such as love, death, and religious devotion are explored, not only through the jewelry displayed, but by accompanying media such as video demonstrations and artwork in which rings are prominently featured.
The dozens of rings on display are remarkable. Gold was usually recycled from other forms, and goldsmiths relied on coins and existing jewelry for the metal needed to forge new rings. Stones were also recycled, but as trade grew they could be obtained from the Middle East and Asia. Since faceting was not mastered until the late medieval period, gems were usually featured in their rough, uncut state, or in cabochon form. A gold ring from Byzantium (figure 2), dating from the 12th–13th centuries and set with aquamarine and pearls, exhibits such an uncut material.

Aquamarine ring from Byzantium
Figure 2. This aquamarine, pearl, and gold ring from Byzantium dates from the 12-13th centuries. From the Griffin Collection. Photograph by Richard Goodbody, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Rings with romantic meaning are a familiar concept to today’s audience, but the medievals had a number of options for expressing their love. Since gems had to be recycled or sourced from distant locations, engravings were often used in their place, as in the Byzantine marriage ring in figure 3. Rather than using images, some Elizabethan-era couples chose to wear “posy” rings, with engravings on the outer and inner bands. Such inscriptions in the displayed rings include “Thinke Wel of Me,” “Providence Divine Hath Made Thee Mine,” and simply, “I Like My Choyse.” Gimmel rings, in which two bands form one complete ring, were also used to commemorate engagements and marriages.

Byzantine engraved gold marriage ring.
Figure 3. This Byzantine gold marriage ring features an engraving of the couple. From the Griffin Collection. Photograph by Richard Goodbody, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Both clergy and laity wore jewelry commemorating their religious devotion, with priests and bishops wearing oversized rings to denote their status. Additional rings were often needed to keep the largest one in place. Pieces of this nature can be seen in artwork within the gallery, such as “Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo” (1490), an oil, gold, and silver painting on a wood panel by the Netherlandish artist Master of Saint Augustine. A similar style is seen in the late 15th century carving entitled “Saint Germain and a Donor.” Medieval Christians would frequently wear jewelry such as rings or brooches engraved with religious iconography or passages in order to obtain divine intercession; wearing these pieces directly on the body was believed to be particularly persuasive. Of particular interest in this category are memento mori rings, intended to remind the wearer of the unimportance of earthly pleasures. From the Latin for “remember that you have to die,” the rings often featured symbols such as skulls or skeletons (as in the British ring seen in figure 1) indicating the fleeting nature of life. As with this locket ring, there were often secret compartments for hidden messages or reminders.

The idea of identity is examined in the collection’s signet and key rings. For people without a family coat-of-arms, signet rings were used as a signature to seal documents and communication. Key rings, a Roman tradition, were used to secure boxes, allowing the wearer exclusive access to the contents. The ring in figure 4 is one such ring, engraved with the owner’s name, Homonoea. 

Key ring from early medieval period.
Figure 4. Key rings, such as this one from the early medieval period, allowed the wearer exclusive access to locked boxes. From the Griffin Collection. Photograph by Richard Goodbody, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The prominence of the ring in the works of art on display reemphasizes its importance to European culture. Along with the previously mentioned pieces, objects complementing the rings include a piece from a 2nd century mummy’s shroud, with the deceased’s image (including hands with rings on every finger) painted on it. Tools of the trade such as scales, along with an ivory personal storage casket with scenes engraved (including a young man giving a ring to a woman) are also on view. Many of the techniques used by medieval goldsmiths have been lost to time, but visitors can view video of modern cutting, design, and setting creation. The relative ease with which this work is done by machine emphasizes the painstaking work of these goldsmiths. This is depicted in the Petrus Christus oil painting “A Goldsmith in His Shop,” wherein a well-to-do couple watches a craftsman weigh a wedding band, his tools and creations surrounding him.

Curated by the Met’s own C. Griffith Mann, Treasures and Talismans is an extraordinary look into the postclassical world of Europe as expressed through jewelry.
Treasures and Talismans: Rings from the Griffin Collection is on view in the Glass Gallery at the Cloisters until October 15, 2015. The recommended admission is $25 for adults, $17 for seniors 65 and over, and $12 for students; this also allows same-day entry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Main Building on Fifth Avenue. The Cloisters is open seven days a week; hours from March through October are 10:00 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. The museum is closed for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Jennifer-Lynn Archuleta is the editor of Gems & Gemology.