Within the canons of art history, rings are often relegated to second-class status. Nineteenth-century art historians, for example, were more likely to regard pieces of jewelry as consumer objects than as products of imaginative artistry on par with sculptures or oil paintings. But since May, the Cloisters have sought to redress this imbalance by highlighting the role rings have played as signifiers of social identity from antiquity to the Renaissance in their exhibit entitled “Treasures and Talismans: Rings from the Griffin Collection.” Last Friday, Fordham Medieval Studies alumnus Scott Miller, who co-authored the exhibition’s catalog, Take This Ring: Medieval and Renaissance Rings from the Griffin Collection, led visitors from Fordham on a tour to explain how rings acquired meaning and worked to construct their bearers’ identities.
The late Byzantine and early medieval rings featured in the exhibit afforded Miller the opportunity to explore how anthropological studies throw light on the work of art history. Historians have searched for explanations, for example, for the transition from the smoothness and relative simplicity that characterized antique rings to the almost “neurotic” quality produced by the geometric and architectural designs from late antiquity. Miller described how British anthropologist Alfred Gell’s ideas concerning magic as a “technology of enchantment” have helped historians to theorize what factors might have been at work in this particular shift. Miller placed the collection’s elaborate late antique rings in the context of the Byzantine court of the tenth century as described by Liutprand of Cremona, who, during his audience with the emperor, observed mechanical singing birds, stomping lions, and levitating thrones. The highly wrought rings of late antique nobles may have been worn with the intent to dazzle and bewilder delegates like Liutprand.
Another group of rings, the diamond giardinetti, demonstrate the importance of provenance in understanding the social roles that rings played. Miller noted that without knowledge of the rings’ background and only their design and materials, a historian would likely judge these fashionable rings to have belonged to courtiers or aristocrats. But the rings’ provenance identifies them as having been donated to a Spanish convent as “dowries” by novices’ families at the time of their entry into the convent. Historians, suggests Miller, have to be wary of ascribing social significance to an artifact based on its design alone. New practices and individual innovations can twist existing conventions to bestow meaning in new and unexpected ways.
To further illustrate his point, Miller turned to Fordham’s own Nina Rowe to ask about her wedding band. While the ring had been invested with great meaning by its bearer, Professor Rowe showed visitors that the band was in fact an inexpensive mood ring, one which had to be replaced so often that she orders them in bulk. “There’s a place in Alaska that sells them for cheap,” she said.
By Andew O’Sullivan