The imagery of clasped hands has a long and storied history in rings. Often called fede rings after the Italian mani in fede, or "hands in faith," this imagery dates back to Ancient Greek and Roman cultures where a handshake, called dextrarum iunctio, or "joining right hands" in Latin, often represented couples joined in marriage. As marriage was considered a legal contract--and rings were often exchanged at the conclusion of a business contract--it only made sense that rings became associated with marriage.
Below is a solid gold Roman ring from the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a fede image carved in relief onto the band. Made in the third Century AD, this imagery was not quite associated with the deep love and affection as it came to be later in the medieval period, and you can see it in the impersonal way the hands are depicted.
Clasped hands were often depicted carved into cameos, such as the ring below from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This traditional Roman marriage ring features a blue agate cameo with clasped hands and is inscribed with the word OMONOIA, meaning harmony. One can start to see how this imagery started to become associated with betrothal and marriage.
After the Roman Empire, clasped hands fell out of fashion, and rings engraved with Christian motifs such as crosses, or portraits (particularly of saints) were much more common during the Byzantine period. However, jewelers started using the mani in fede imagery again during the middle ages, as the ideas of courtly love and affection started gaining ground, particularly with the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
An interesting early example, the below ring from the V&A Museum uses a roman red jasper intaglio from the third century in a thirteenth or early fourteenth century setting.
Likely intended to be a signet, the ring and setting are inscribed with text of religious significance, and can be read as + CHRISTUS VINCIT, CHRISTUS REGNAT, CHRISTUS IMPERAT which translates as "Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules; and + ET VERBUM CARO FACTO EST ET HABITAVIT IN NOBIS, or "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." The intaglio is carved with the initials CCPS and IPD.
However, the below ring was a silver token, made in Italy in the fifteenth century and held by the British Museum. The inscription and details around the band suggest it was given as a gift by "Jacob."
As ring appearances evolved during the Renaissance, elements of different styles were often combined, and details added, such as inscriptions or engraving in the band.
Jewelers began to inscribe poesies on the inside of the band (see our post on posey rings here!) such as the fifteenth century English ring below from the collection of the V&A Museum. It is inscribed with initials on the wrists of the hands and the words sauns faileur, or "without fail" in blackletter on the inside of the band.
Another simple gold band, this ring at the National Maritime Museum was part of a set exchanged by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson and his mistress, Emma Hamilton, who's rise and fall in British society is a fascinating story. She was a blacksmith's daughter and muse of the painter George Romney, who fell in love with the married Admiral while she was married as well. This affair was well known throughout Britain and was somewhat tolerated by both of their spouses, although it was considered a scandal by British society. When Emma's elderly husband died, she participated in a ring ceremony with Horatio Nelson where they exchanged the below ring, which he wore until his death at the battle of Trafalgar.
Of course, we've created our own contemporary versions of fede rings in styles that reference these historical examples. We carve these out of wax and cast them locally. We'd love to work on work on a special ring for you! Feel free to contact us here if you would like to discuss a special piece!