Medieval Emblems of Devotion

New York Times, May 1, 2009

NEW YORK — From the pious gold stirrup rings of the Gothic period to the flashy, bezel-set jewels worn by Byzantium’s wealthiest merchants, medieval society had a ring for every occasion: marriage rings, signet rings, iconographic rings, merchant rings, bishop’s rings, mourning rings — posy rings for lovers, engraved with lines of verse.

In “Roman to Renaissance: A Private Collection of Rings,” on view May 12 to 22 at the London art and antiques dealer Wartski, the collector Sandra Hindman offers an original take on art history in the Merovingian, Byzantine, Medieval and Renaissance periods, through her collection of 35 museum-quality rings, valued at $20,000 to $110,000 each.

“I wanted to relate the rings to other works of art, to put them in an art historical context,” said Dr. Hindman, a professor of art history at Northwestern University in Chicago.

She cited a thin 13th-century gold stirrup ring that belongs to the collection. Although shaped like a horse’s stirrup, the name, she said, is a misnomer. “In fact, these are bishop’s rings and they originated at the exact same time they started doing pointed arches in Gothic cathedrals,” she said.

Dr. Hindman, as president of Les Enluminures, a gallery in Paris and Chicago specialized in medieval and renaissance illuminated manuscripts and art, was asked by a friend, 20 years ago, to negotiate the sale of a medieval ring.

She immediately “became enchanted,” she said, and set about building her collection. Among the finest pieces is an early Christian Roman gold marriage ring, dating from about A.D. 500. Engraved with male and female busts, it features a small cross, which forms the “T” in the inscription Vivatis — “Long live.”

An architectural baptismal ring from the mid-6th century A.D., its gold pyramidal roof crowned by a cabochon garnet, is a relic of Merovingian Gaul’s Christian society. It may have been plundered from an ecclesiastical treasury or tomb after the French Revolution, Dr. Hindman said.

By contrast, a 12th- or 13th-century Byzantine ring, set with a translucent cushion-shaped aquamarine and two seed pearls, conjures the dense streets of Constantinople, a hub for traders carrying parcels of fine gemstones from Madagascar — then known as Île de Béryls, or the Island of Beryls. The ring’s distinct trumpet-style mount, decorated with fine gold granules, is a superb example of medieval craftsmanship.

“There are rings made with 35 pieces of gold put together in a very sophisticated way,” Dr. Hindman said. “The technical complexity is astounding.”

Braided, pierced and often inscribed with phrases of love and devotion, many of the early rings in the collection feature a sole, but not simple focus, on high-karat gold. Gemstones appeared later — polished into cabochons, said Dr. Hindman, so as not to offend God, who, it was thought, would have cut them with facets if he had wanted them that way.

“People say you buy Bulgari or Chanel to show to others and you buy medieval rings to please yourself,” Dr. Hindman said, looking down at a 15th-century English iconographic ring on the middle finger of her left hand.

“It’s not a status symbol,” she said, holding the ring up to display an inscription on the inside of the band —“Nothing so good as you.” “It’s very personal.”