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  • Place of origin:


  • Date:

    6th century - 8th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Nielloed gold

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The veiled figure nielloed on the bezel of the ring may represent the Virgin Mary, the letters M.A. therefore referring to Maria. The Virgin and Child was an especially popular subject in Byzantine art and begins to appear on ring bezels in the 6th to 7th century. Images of Christ, the Virgin and saints functioned as sacred icons, irrespective of the materials with which they were made, invoking divine power and protecting the wearer or beholder.

Niello is a mixture of silver, lead, copper, sulphur and borax which when heated forms a black paste. It can be used to decorate metalwork by engraving a pattern into the metal which is filled with niello. When the mixture has cooled, it leaves a shiny black inlay. The collector Edmund Waterton, who owned this ring in the mid 19th century, claimed that the earliest recipe for niello he had found was by the writer Eraclius in the 8th century who had been drawing on Byzantine sources and that it was transcribed in the 15th century in a manuscript by Jean Le Begue.

This ring forms part of a collection of 760 rings and engraved gems from the collection of Edmund Waterton (1830-87). 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.

Physical description

Nielloed gold ring, the circular bezel with a bust of the Virgin Mary between M and A

Place of Origin



6th century - 8th century (made)



Materials and Techniques

Nielloed gold

Marks and inscriptions

engraved M and A


Height: 1.8 cm, Width: 2.2 cm, Depth: 1.3 cm

Object history note

ex Waterton Collection. See Dumbarton Oaks ring for similar figure of the Virgin.
Described by Waterton in his article on niello: "My dactyliotheca contains likewise two other examples of early niello. One is a gold denarius of Constantine IV.... the other ring has a circular bezel with the bust of a female - possibly intended for our Blessed Lady, - with the letters M.A."

Descriptive line

Nielloed gold ring, the circular bezel with a bust of the Virgin Mary between M and A, Byzantine, 6th to 8th century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Waterton, Edmund 'On niello', Archaeological Journal, vol XIX, London 1862, p. 325
Oman, Charles, Catalogue of rings in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1930, reprinted Ipswich, 1993, p.61, cat. 216, plate VIII
Smith, William and Cheetham, Samuel eds. A dictionary of Christian antiquities, London 1875-80, ii 1299
Bury, Shirley, Jewellery Gallery Summary Catalogue (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982) 32/ G/ 3
Vikan, Gary, Early Christian and Byzantine Rings in the Zucker Family Collection, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, Vol. 45, (1987), pp. 32-43
Waterton, Edmund Dactyliotheca Watertoniana: a descriptive catalogue of the finger-rings in the collection of Mrs Waterton, (manuscript, 1866, now in National Art Library)


Gold; Niello

Subjects depicted



Jewellery; Metalwork


Metalwork Collection

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