The sapphire is held by eight claws into an octofoil collet which echoes the traceried windows of Gothic cathedrals. This cusped design is illustrated by Gerard David in his Portrait of a Goldsmith (dated 1505-1510), who holds up rings with similar bezels (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). A sapphire of this size and quality is highly unusual in jewels of this period, as is its faceting. Most surviving examples are set with sapphires cut en cabochon, that is in the domed form and shape. One of the earliest known examples of a faceted sapphire in scalloped setting is that said to have been found in the tomb of William Wytlesey Archbishop of Canterbury (d.1374) (cf. C. Oman, 1974, plate 18c). This ring also strongly relates to two examples illustrated by D. Scarisbrick, Historic Rings, 2004, p 48-50, no.s 117 and 118, both dated to the 15th century.
The source of the sapphire is not European but from the East, and is likely to have been sourced from one of the traditional mines in either Ceylon, Burma or Kashmir, and subsequently brought across Asia by caravan to a Mediterranean seaport. From thence, the stone would have been sold in Genoa or Venice where it was customary for itinerant merchants to acquire precious stones to trade in the cities of the north.
Prized for its intrinsic value, beauty and rarity, the sapphire was also worn as an amulet. According to Marbode, Bishop of Rennes, France (1035-1133) author of the most influential lapidary, or compendium, of the healing and protective powers of stones, the sapphire kept the wearer from poverty and, being the colour of the Virgin and of the heavens, protected his or her chastity, comforted the heart, expelled envy, detected fraud and witchcraft and helped prisoners to escape. (cf C. Oman, British Rings, 1974, p. 60). It was also believed to act as a remedy for infections of the eyes, and the inventory of Charles V of France ( J. Labarte no. 2937, ) lists a sapphire “pour toucher aux yeux”.
Adding to the properties of this ring are the infant Christ and of St. Elizabeth of Hungary engraved on the shoulders that belong to a type of English devotional ring named iconographic although unusually, these figures are located on the shoulders only and are subsidiary to the gem-set bezel. Also unusual is the image of the Infant Christ independent of his mother, the Virgin Mary ,whereas the a similar depiction of the young and queenly St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-31), revered for her austerities and care for the poor, can be found on the beads of an English gold rosary of about 1500 ( cf. Eric Maclagan, Archaeologia Vol. LXXXV p.6 no.28a). With other saints she is also represented on a carved rood screen of the same date at Holy Trinity Church, Torbryan, in Devon, England.
Evoking the age of faith, the intrepid merchants who risked many dangers on their travels by land and sea, the skills of the goldsmiths and lapidaries who benefited from the rising prosperity of towns, especially Paris, Cologne, Bruges, Antwerp and London, this extraordinary find epitomises the late medieval world and the desire of the upper ranks of society to display their wealth.
©DIANA SCARISBRICK MA FSA