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‘Decade’ rings are so called because their hoops are usually shaped into ten small bosses or knobs, with an eleventh larger one to form the bezel. They functioned as miniature rosaries: an 'Ave' was supposed to be said as each of the small bosses was touched, and a 'Pater Noster' at the bezel. These and other kinds of religious rings were especially popular during the 15th and the 16th centuries.
Many ‘decade’ rings have bezels engraved with the figures of saints. This ring depicts the figures of St Barbara and St Christopher on the ridged bezel, both of whom were credited with the power to protect from sudden death. This was a matter for great concern amongst Christians as it meant dying without the last rites and absolution of the priest. It was only necessary to see a representation of St Christopher to be secure from death from the rest of the day, so this ring would have had a particularly effective use. Silver or gold 'iconographic' rings engraved with the figures of saints were particularly common in the 14th and 15th century and seem to have been a largely British type. The religious imagery was often combined with romantic inscriptions suggesting that they may sometimes have been used as love gifts or wedding rings. In 1463, John Baret of Bury St Edmunds bequeathed to 'Elizabeth .. my wyf a ryng of golde with an ymage of the Trinite' (Bury Wills, p. 36).
This ring forms part of a collection of 760 rings and engraved gems from the collection of Edmund Waterton (1830-81). Waterton was one of the foremost ring collectors of the nineteenth century and was the author of several articles on rings, a book on English devotion to the Virgin Mary and an unfinished catalogue of his collection (the manuscript is now the National Art Library). Waterton was noted for his extravagance and financial troubles caused him to place his collection in pawn with the London jeweller Robert Phillips. When he was unable to repay the loan, Phillips offered to sell the collection to the Museum and it was acquired in 1871. A small group of rings which Waterton had held back were acquired in 1899.
Gold 'decade' ring. The circular hoop formed of thirteen evenly-spaced knobs, the large ridged bezel engraved with a depiction of Saint Barbara on one side, Saint Christopher on the other. Inscribed in black lettering 'A MA VYE'.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Marks and inscriptions
'A MA VYE'
Height: 0.9 cm, Width: 2.4 cm, Depth: 2.4 cm, Diameter: 1.9 cm
Object history note
ex Waterton Collection
Historical context note
‘Decade’ rings are so called because their hoops are usually shaped into ten bosses or knobs, with an eleventh larger one to form the bezel. They functioned as miniature rosaries: an 'Ave' was supposed to be said as each of the small bosses was touched, and a 'Pater Noster' at the bezel. These and other kinds of religious rings were particularly popular during the 15th and then the 16th centuries.
Many early ‘decade’ rings have bezels engraved with the figures of saints. The present ring shows the figures of St Barbara and St Christopher on the bezel, both of whom were credited with the power to protect from sudden death. This was a matter for great concern amongst Christians as it meant dying without the last rites and absolution of the priest. It was only necessary to see a representation of St Christopher to be secure from death from the rest of the day, so this ring would have been seen as particularly useful, imbued with a quasi-magical quality understood as the image of the saint extending its protective sphere around the body of the wearer. St Christopher, furthermore, was particularly venerated in England in the 15th century, and so his image would have been extremely popular at the time this ring was created. His image adorned not just rings, but other objects worn on the person, such as girdle pendants and badges, and both men and women wore them for protection and adornment.
This ring is also adorned with an inscription on the inside, which reads ‘A MA VYE’. It is not unusual for religious rings to bear this kind of amorous inscription. There is another 15th century English ring in the V&A collections, inscribed with the figures of St Barbara and St Catherine(?) with ‘de bon cor’ inscribed on the inside and there is also a 15th century silver poesy ring of French provenance in the British Museum, which is inscribed ‘a ma vie de coer entier’. It may be that the inscription on the present ring is just the shortened form of this sentiment, which perhaps can be best translated as ‘to my life (i.e. the ring’s recipient) with all my heart’. This indicates that as well as a protective ring, this object may also have functioned as a love token - a gift between lovers, even perhaps a wedding ring.
Gold 'decade' ring with an iconographical bezel depicting Saint Barbara and Saint Christopher, inscribed in black lettering 'A MA VYE', England, 1400-1500
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Evans, Joan, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Particularly in England, Oxford, 1922
Oman, Charles, Catalogue of Rings, London, HMSO, 1930, no.723, p.110, pl.XXX, pp.97-98.
Campbell, Marian, Medieval Jewellery in Europe 1100-1500, London, V&A Publishing, 2009, pp. 82-7
Ward, Anne et al, The Ring from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century, London, Thames and Hudson, 1981, no.184, p.81
Townsend, Eleanor Death and art: Europe 1200-1530 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2009), p.51, fig. 43
Church, Rachel, Rings, London, V&A Publishing, 2011, p.21, cat. 16
Barbara (Saint); Christopher (Saint)
Jewellery; Metalwork; Europeana Fashion Project