Collections in Focus is a new series of blog posts where we will be sharing a selection of special items from our collection and giving you a bit more information about them too. The first focuses on a Medieval ring in the collection with engravings which have a link to the Easter story.
Medieval Gold Finger-ring from Abridge, Essex
By Jill Holmen, Collections Manager
We have several religious pieces in our medieval collection, including a number of finger—rings. This particular example is possibly the finest and most visually powerful of them.
It dates to around 1475-1525. It is cast from gold and the hoop comprises five circular bezels separated by oval beads with scale decoration. Each bezel is engraved and may have originally been enamelled.
The ten beads and bezels identify this as a ‘decade ring’, which would have been used in the same way as a rosary for personal prayer. The engraved symbols show the ‘Instruments of the Passion’, which were popular in medieval art, symbolising Christ’s suffering at the time of his execution. At around the time this ring was made, they feature in devotional books accompanying specific meditations on the events associated with each, adding an extra level of contemplation.
The following lists the symbols as I interpret them and outlines the element of the Easter story each represents (click on the images to see the full description):
Bezel 1: Three dice. After Christ’s crucifixion, the soldiers divided his clothes between them, casting lots to decide who would take the fine cloak used to mock Jesus as ‘King of the Jews’.
Bezel 2: The Cross, with the hammer and nails used for the act of crucifixion. A hyssop plant grows beside the cross. According to the gospel of St John, a hyssop stalk was used to raise a sponge soaked in vinegar and gall to Christ’s lips – a reference to the Old Testament (Moses told his followers to use hyssop to smear the blood of the Paschal lamb around their doors for passover), reinforcing Christ’s sacrifical role.
Bezel 3: A pair of pincers, used to remove the nails from his ankles and wrists; A flail, used to flog Christ before his execution; 3 money-bags, representing the 30 pieces of silver Judas Iscariot received for betraying Christ.
Bezel 4: The Sacred Heart (symbolising Christ’s redeeming love) surrounded by the crown of thorns, another prop used in the mocking of Jesus.
Bezel 5: The central image appears to be the pillar or column, to which Jesus was tied for flogging. Two items cross in front of this, one is probably the Spear used to pierce Jesus’ side before he was brought down from the cross. The other may be St Veronica’s veil. Traditionally, St Veronica, moved with pity as Jesus passed carrying his cross to Calvary, wiped his face with her veil on which his image miraculously appeared.
The images on this ring might seem gruesome to our 21st century eyes, but relics had been venerated since the 4th Century, and a new wave brought back from the Crusades led to an increase in their use during this period. Many religious institutions owned Holy Relics, as did some pious individuals. Illustrations may well have served a similar purpose for those who were unable to acquire the ‘real thing’ and some scholars suggest that contemplation of the Passion was believed equivalent to a level of repentance.
Although we can never know who wore this ring, the precious metal and high-quality work imply that they were probably wealthy and of high social rank.
The finger-ring was found by a metal-detectorist, searching with the landowner’s permission, in Abridge in 2004 and was reported under the Treasure Act (1996). We purchased it with help from the Art Fund, the V&A/MLA Purchase Grant Fund and the Headley Museums Treasure Acquisition Scheme.
More information on the Treasure Act can be found on http://www.finds.org.uk