Rare Roman key ring, testament to the late Empire’s Christianization

Gold ring in opus interrasile technique with hoop widening towards the bezel, flat on the interior, rounded on the exterior. The openwork shoulders and base of the bezel have a frieze of ivy leaves. The bezel projects horizontally into a rectangular frame of square section wire which rests on the finger. Inside in silhouette are four Greek crosses with tapering arms joined by tiny studs. The ring shows signs of wear through age.  The hoop is slightly uneven; the ring is in good wearable condition.  


Decorative gold key rings evolved from the Roman key rings made of bronze or iron found throughout the Roman Empire and in numerous museum collections, see: Chadour 1994, vol. I, nos. 370-378 with further references. Like here, later examples emulate the key form and became ever more ornamental.

Elaborate key rings with openwork designs in gold, like this one, are rare and date to the third and fourth century AD. During this period opus interrasile was a favored style and jewels in this technique were desirable and fashionable. The gold is cast, pierced, and then chiseled to create the openwork effect. For an in-depth analysis of opus interrasile and a compendium of jewelry, see: Aimilia Yeroulanou. Diatrita: Gold Pierced Work Jewellery from the 3rd to the 7th century, Benaki Museum, Athens 1999, nos. 334-342 for key rings, cf. no. 340 for a ring in the British Museum with similar cross pattern (Dalton 1912, no. 3, found in Egypt).      

Unlike the decorative gold rings, Roman key rings in base metals were functional, they were thought to have been used for opening special containers or boxes which held either jewels or documents of importance, like a marriage contract. In contrast late Roman and Early Christian gold rings of the third and fourth century AD are full of symbolism. They often have love messages, and existing examples suggest they were given in promise of marriage as betrothal rings. For a brief overview of key rings and further examples, see: Beatriz Chadour-Sampson/ Sandra Hindman, Rings around the World, Les Enluminures 2016, no. 6. The tradition of key rings continued during the Byzantine era, cf. Chadour 1994, vol. 1, nos. 499-501.

This ornamental key ring with four Greek crosses suggests the owner was an Christian. The symbolism of the ivy goes back to Greek and Roman mythology, the cult of Dionysus and later Bacchus who was depicted wreathed in ivy with the connotation of sexual desire. In a Christian context the evergreen ivy is a symbol of immortality and eternal life. For Christian motifs on rings of this era, see: Hindman 2017, nos. 1-6.


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