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Barthel Bruyn the Younger, “Portrait of a Woman of the Slosgin Family of Cologne” (1557), oil on wood (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted)

Rings are one of the most personal and oldest human adornments, evolving in complexity with metalwork techniques and the gemstone trade. Treasures and Talismans: Rings from the Griffin Collection, now at the Cloisters branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explores over 50 examples of rings from antiquity to the Renaissance, and their significance in love, devotion, and remembering mortality.

Those memento mori rings that date to the Renaissance are among the most spectacular of the Griffin Collection pieces, all on rare view from the private collection in the Cloisters’s stained glass-lined Glass Gallery. One diamond-encrusted skull from 17th century England opens to reveal a small ruby, representing that something beautiful thrives even in death. Another created in 17th-century Germany opens into two parts, with secret compartments on either side holding dual figures: a baby and a skeleton. An inscription reads: “What God has joined together, let no man tear asunder.”

Skull memento mori locket ring (British, 17th century), gold, enamel, diamond, ruby

Memento mori rosary (German, 1500–1525), ivory, silver, and partially gilded mounts

Renaissance Gimmel ring with memento mori (German, 1631), gold, enamel, diamond, ruby. The ring separates into two parts with secret spaces revealing a baby on one side and a skeleton on the other.

These reminders of death were meditative objects on the fleetingness of our material lives, a message perhaps a bit ironic when melded into gold and decked out in all the gemstones you could afford. Nevertheless, these pieces are among the most intricate in exploring the intimacy of rings. Similarly posy rings from the Elizabethan era have interior inscriptions known only to the wearer, often given by a friend or lover. Other rings were worn for sealing letters with signets, as signs of status, or even objects of faith, such as nine diamond rings from a Spanish convent, given as part of a novice’s dowry.

Installation view of ‘Treasures and Talismans: Rings from the Griffin Collection,’ with at right: Petrus Christus, “A Goldsmith in his Shop” (Netherlandish, 1449), oil on oak panel

Treasures and Talismans, curated by C. Griffith Mann is equally interested in the history of goldsmithing as in these contemplative moments, encouraged through the careful illumination of each ring in the vitrines. Throughout, objects from the Met’s own collections join the rings to highlight their use in portraiture, and emphasize the craft of the metalworking trade. A 1449 painting by Petrus Christus shows a goldsmith in his shop, sitting at a bench with shelves stacked with jewelry and religious vessels, a well-dressed couple watching as he weighs a wedding ring.

Rings remain something of a personal talisman, worn close to the skin, whether a marriage band or something with more personal meaning. A diamond ring from Roman antiquity in the exhibition is not terribly different in its design from contemporary jewelry, although the gem held aloft by the gold structure is raw (cutting techniques came later in the 15th century) and was even more rare with almost all Roman diamonds journeying from India. It’s impossible to know what meaning it and the other rings had for their wearers, but each had some significance in personal identity, whether in celebrating life, or considering death.

Installation view of ‘Treasures and Talismans: Rings from the Griffin Collection’

Late Roman key ring “Homonea” (Roman Empire, late 3rd-early 4th- century), Gold and nicolo (courtesy Griffin Collection, photo by Richard Goodbody)

Conrad Faber von Creuznach, “Portrait of a Man with a Moor’s Head on His Signet Ring” (1530s), oil and gold on wood

Early Christian gemstone ring of gold, garnet, and emerald (Roman, 4th-5th century); Gold Roman key ring with inscription (Byzantine, 4th century)

Byzantine gemstone ring (Byzantium, Constantinople, 12th–13th century), gold, aquamarine, and pearls (courtesy Griffin Collection, photo by Richard Goodbody)

Gothic love ring, inscribed “Corte Porta Amor” (“The Heart Brings Love to You”) (Italian, 14th century), gold, ruby

Posy rings with hidden interior inscriptions

Gold marriage ring (Byzantine, 6th–7th century) (courtesy Griffin Collection, photo by Richard Goodbody)

Saint Germain and a Donor (French, Burgundy, near Auxerre, late 15th century), limestone, paint, with the saint wearing two rings on his left hand

Installation view of ‘Treasures and Talismans: Rings from the Griffin Collection’

Nine diamond rings from a convent (Spanish, late 17th–18th century), gold, diamond

Memento mori rosary (German, 1500–1525), ivory, silver, and partially gilded mounts

Treasures and Talismans: Rings from the Griffin Collection continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters (99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan) through October 18.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “The Meaning of the Ring, from Memento Mori to Marriage”

  1. Kudos Hyperallergic! Great article- rings possess a bounty of meaning beyond good design. It’s exactly why I pump so much symbolism into my Sculpturings, to tell individual narratives and stories in a physical, sculptural, & wearable form.
    Thanks for penning the article, Allison!

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