An important Medieval Ring with Roman Gemstone, ca. 12th - 13th century

This ring is a private seal matrix (Latin secretum) dating between the twelfth and thirteenth century.  Private composite seals, such as this example, were highly prized by medieval Europeans and became particularly popular during the twelfth century with wealthy individuals (Martin Henig, “The re-use and copying of ancient intaglios set in medieval personal seals, mainly found in England: an aspect of the Renaissance of the 12th century,” in Noël Adams, John Cherry and James Robinson, ed., Good impressions: image and authority in medieval seals (London, 2008), 25-34.).  Combining gold and very expensive gems, they proclaimed their owners’ wealth and social status.  Imprints into wax from seals such as these, were used to secure letters, boxes, and the like; ensuring, by their unbroken state, the contents were undisturbed. 

The ring’s inscription, reversed to be legible on imprints, reads +SECRETVM VE. The second word, VE, is an abbreviated personal name, in the grammatical form that indicates personal ownership. The writing is in “Lombards” capital letters that include a unique form of M shaped like a zero with a curved line to the right. That particular letter form was used in England from the 1190s to the 1290s, with occasional appearances as late at the 1340s (H.S. Kingsford, "The Epigraphy of Medieval English Seals," Archaeologia ser. 2 vol. 29 (1929), 149-78.).   On the Continent it occurred earlier - on a seal of the French king Louis VII from 1137 (Martine Dalas, Corpus des sceaux français du Moyen Age, vol. 2: Les sceaux des rois et de régence (Paris, 1991), 146-147; GermainDemay, “La Paléographie des sceaux,” in Inventaire des sceaux de la Normandie (Paris, 1881), iii-xliv) - and it was popular in the thirteenth century both in France and elsewhere.  A seal matrix in Budapest (Amás Gesztelyi, Antike Gemmen im Ungarischen Nationalmuseum (Budapest, 2000), 38 no. 5.) offers a close parallel to this example.

The ring is inlaid with an engraved Roman gemstone, dating to the early 1st century AD, of orange-red carnelian; a popular stone as it does not stick to hot wax.  The intaglio portrays a young Dionysus, the Olympian god of fertility and wine, shown standing with his right elbow resting on a low column.  He holds a thyrsus with streamers in his right hand, and his extended left holds a sprig of ivy. His head is adorned with a crown of ivy and a mantle is wrapped around his lower body.  At his feet stands his graceful but savage companion animal, the panther; identified for its foremost devotion and loyalty to the god.  This intaglio style is known from a number of examples, perhaps the closest parallels are at the Getty (Jeffrey Spier,  Ancient Gems and Finger Rings: Catalogue of the Collections, The J. Paul Getty Museum (Getty Museum) Fig. 260) and the Met as part of the Cesnola collection (Gisela Marie Augusta Richter, Catalogue of engraved gems of the classical style, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, N.Y.,) 107 no.162), where both gems show Dionysus standing, holding a thyrsus and kantharos, with a panther at his feet.

Condition:  The ring form itself is typical of the twelfth to thirteenth century. Most distinctive is the triangular joining of the band with the bezel, found on similar thirteenth century rings in Cambridge and Chicago (Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology 1953.500. Sandra Hindman et al., Toward an Art History of Medieval Rings: a private collection (London, 2007), 120-23, 224, no. 19.).  The small rectangular plates flanking the bezel are paralleled on a twelfth century example in Brussels (Claire Dumortier et al., La salle aux trésors: chefs-d'oeuvre de l'art roman et mosan (Turnhout, 1999) no. 56).  The gemstone is somewhat raised in the bezel and the gold rim securing the gem has been pushed out, slightly overlapping some of the letters. A row of tiny striations runs around that rim, effaced in several places. Overall, the ring is intact and in excellent condition - a testament as to how such examples continued to be prized over time by their many owners.

Dimensions:  US ring size: 6 1/4,   UK ring size:  M 1/2;  Swiss ring size:  ~12 3/4;  Japanese: ~12

Provenance:  Private English collection by descent to current owner.

All photos copyright Kornbluth Photography, Maryland


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