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Rings, Liturgical Use of


Rounded ornaments, mainly of metal or precious stone, usually worn on the finger, lip, neck, nose, ankle, arm, or ears as a symbol of religious or magic power, or used for exchange or value and adornment among ancient peoples, as well as a pledge of loyalty and trust. Ancient rings of marble, ivory, crystal, and metal have been discovered in almost every culture. Many were ornamented with gems, jewels, stones, pearls, and enamel. In ancient Egypt, Mycenae, Cyprus, and among the Celts, golden rings with markings for dismemberment were used as instruments of exchange or money; later, in Egypt particularly, the facing on a ring was used as a seal for the authentication of documents. This last practice was common in Israel and Greece and was adopted by the Romans, from whom the Christians borrowed it; this use has continued to the present day.

Bible and Early Church. The OT frequently refers to the use of gold or metal rings as ornaments, and many have been discovered in ancient Palestinian tombs. Arm, foot, and nose rings are mentioned in Genesis (24.22), Isaiah (3.1821), Ezekiel (16.1112), and Ecclesiastes (11.22). Pharaoh invested Joseph with a ring to signify his dignity (Gn 41.42), and Saul's arm ring was evidently a sign of rank (2 Sm 32.2). Women wore earrings, but the custom was also indulged in by men (Nm 31.50). The ancient Romans at first limited the use of finger rings to senators and high officials, but by 216 b.c., knights could wear them, and in the republic, it became general custom to wear signet, betrothal (anulus pronubus ), wedding, and birthday (anulus natalicius ) rings.

Tertullian complains about the luxurious use of rings by Christians (De cultu fem. 1.9), and Cyprian (De hab. virg. 21) and Jerome (Epist. 107.5) caution against this vanity. clement of alexandria distinguishes between the images on rings that were of pagan or immoral character and those permitted to Christians, such as the fish or dove as signs of Christian hope, the ship and anchor as symbols of heavenly security, and the lamb, lion, Orans, and Monogram of Christ as laudable symbolism. Later, pictures of Christ and the saints adorned Christian rings, and some were fitted with reliquaries and worn round the neck. Gnostic rings usually carried a magic or religious formula and were considered amulets. Costly rings have been found in the tombs of Germanic and Frankish nobles of the 7th century, and during the Renaissance, artists prided themselves on turning out precious and luxuriously ornamented rings.

Liturgical Rings. St. Augustine speaks of the bishop's ring as a seal (Epist. 127.59), and it is probably from this practical usage that rings became a sign of the episcopal office. Isidore of Seville mentions the bishop's ring and staff in the course of the consecration and installation ceremonies (De eccl. off. 2.5.12; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 187890] 83:783), and so does the Council of Toledo IV in 633 (28; Patrologia Latina, 84:374375). It was used in Gaul in the 9th century, according to a letter from Charles the Bald in 867 to Nicholas I (Patrologia Latina, 124:874). Rings eventually became a sign of the bishop's marriage to his see, and in the 10th century, the wearing of rings by bishops became an accepted custom. Innocent III tells us that bishops use the ring as a fidei sacramentum, that is, as a contract of love and faith between them and their church. The use of a ring was granted to the abbot of Monte Cassino by Leo IX (Patrologia Latina, 182:832).

The pope has three official rings: one for ordinary usage, the pontifical ring for ceremonies, and the ring of the Fisherman. The latter, the anulus piscatoris, is the gold seal ring that the cardinal camerlengo places on a new pope's finger. On it is the pope's name and an engraving of St. Peter in a boat fishing (Lk 5.10). It has been used for sealing briefs from the 15th century and is ceremoniously destroyed by the camerlengo on the death of the pope. The cardinal's ring is presented to him by the pope in the first consistory the cardinal attends after his elevation. Abbots wore rings from the 12th century with papal permission, and more generally from the 15th century. Some cathedral chapters and, since the 10th century, clerics in orders having doctoral degrees in theology, philosophy, or Canon Law may wear a ring designating their office or achievement. St. Ambrose witnesses to the right of consecrated virgins to wear a ring; and since the 14th century, many orders of professed nuns and sisters wear rings as a sign of their complete dedication to Christ.

Wedding Rings. The Christian use of wedding rings developed from the Roman custom of betrothal rings.

They are mentioned by gregory of tours in the 6th century (Vitae patrum 20) and were widespread among the Visigoths and Lombards. In later times, husband and wife gave each other rings in pledge of their union and fidelity. In the old Roman Ritual, however, there is only the ceremonial for the ring given to the bride by the groom. Custom in this matter differed widely. Wearing the wedding ring on the third finger of the left hand seems to be connected originally with pronouncing the Trinitarian formula over the thumb and first two fingers so that the Amen was pronounced on the third finger.

Other Uses. In the 15th century, rosary rings with ten beads for each decade came into use, and this type of ring has been revived in modern times.

Bibliography: h. battke, Geschichte des Ringes (Baden-Baden 1953). j. a. martigny, Des Anneaux chez les premiers chrétiens (Mâcon 1858). g. f. kunz, Rings (Philadelphia 1917). j. r. mccarthy, Rings Through the Ages (New York 1945).

[f. x. murphy/

j. nabuco/eds.]

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