Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Bit of History

“I Will Espouse You

The Origin, History and Meaning

of a Religious Profession Ring
Sr. Hildegard Magdalen Pleva, OSsR

“Receive this ring, for you are betrothed to the Eternal King; keep faith with your bridegroom so that you may come to the wedding feast of eternal joy.” (Foley, 183)
In the Rite of Solemn Religious Profession every Redemptoristine nun receives with these words a visible and lasting sign of her resolve “to live for God alone, in solitude and silence; in persevering prayer and willing penance, in humble work and holiness of life.” (OSsR Profession Formula) The nun responds in song, “My Lord Jesus Christ has betrothed me with this ring; and adorned me as his spouse.”

The presentation of profession rings to be worn as noticeable signs of commitment to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience is not at all unusual among orders and congregations of women religious. The profession ring of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer, however, bears a design that is unusual and strikingly meaningful in its symbolism. The top of the ring, what jewelers refer to as the bezel, is molded in the shape of clasped hands. The origin and history of this design was all but lost to most Redemptoristines by the 2006, two hundred and seventy-five years since the beginning of the Order. Those years saw the gradual spread of the Order to six continents and the adaptation of its small monasteries to a variety of times and cultures. Today’s monasteries are a far remove from the Neapolitan beginnings in the hillside town of Scala, Italy in 1731. The nuns in my own monastery could tell me nothing about their ring except that, to the best of their knowledge, it had been used from the earliest days of their founding. The design of the ring was not mentioned in the Rule approved for use in 1935 nor in the Constitutions and Statutes guiding the order since 1985.

A few years ago we were quite amazed to see a ring very similar to our own on the hand of a visitor to the monastery. Upon inquiry, we learned that the ring was a silver museum reproduction of a Roman betrothal ring. This was quite a revelation to us and provided initial direction for research begun months later at the approach of my own solemn profession. While anticipating reception of this powerful symbol of vows, I was motivated to begin a quest to determine the origin of our profession ring by surfing the Internet looking for documentation of the museum reproduction worn by our friend. Google, the powerful Internet search engine, led to most of the information contained here.

Jewelers and historians of artifacts refer to rings which bear the design of clasped hands as ‘fede rings’. The word fede comes from the Italian words mani in fede, meaning hands in trust. An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry offers a very complete description of the fede ring and its origin:

A type of finger ring, often worn as a betrothal or
engagement ring, but sometimes merely as a token
of affection, having as decoration an engraved pair
of clasped right hands or two such hands molded to
form the bezel. They were usually made of silver
(some of gold). On some examples from the 15th
century the hands were at the back of the ring, and
the bezel ornamented sometimes with a gemstone
or a woman’s head or heart. Occasionally the fede
ring was made in the form of a gimmel ring, with the
hands on separate hoops and made to link together;
these were sometimes separated so that each of an
engaged couple could wear half until the marriage.
Fede rings were used in Roman days, and were
popular throughout Europe from the 12th until the
18th century. Some have an inscription (usually
amatory, but sometimes religious or magical)
around the hoops. The term ‘fede’ is said to have
been introduced by 19th century ring collectors
from the Italian mani in fede…
(Newman, 122)

The use of rings, worn on various parts of the body or pierced through them, was common practice in most ancient cultures. In ancient Egypt, Mycenae, and Cyprus, and among the Celts, golden rings were used as a medium of exchange or money. Later, particularly in Egypt, the facing or design of a ring was used as a seal for the authentication of documents. This became common in Israel and Greece and was later adopted by the Romans from whom Christians appropriated the practice. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, XII, 504) A Roman ring of gold, dating from the 1st or 2nd century A.D., is decorated with a pair of clasped hands, known as “Dextarum Iunctio”. The hands represented the legal sanctioning of a contract. The design, which might be described as a signet ring today, was also used as decoration for betrothal or wedding rings symbolizing the marriage contract. It was popular throughout the Roman period and spread into provinces of the empire. By the 3rd century A.D., inscriptions were usually added either below or above the hands. Eventually the Roman design evolved from the signet form to a molded pair of clasped hand constituting the entire bezel of the ring. It is also thought that the Romans began the tradition of wearing these rings on the third finger of the left hand, believed to be the location of the ‘vena amoris’, the ‘vein of love’ first named by the Egyptians as leading directly to the heart.

In the late Middle Ages and particularly during the Renaissance there was an explosion of interest in everything associated with ancient Greece and Rome. The attraction to antiquity was not limited to the fields of philosophy, mathematics and literature but also extended to architecture and the decorative arts including jewelry and costume. The Roman clasped hands ring was reappropriated and achieved great popularity during the Renaissance as a betrothal ring. Its use continued into the 18th century. From the middle of sixteenth to the close of the seventeenth century, it was customary to inscribe inside the ring a motto or ‘posy’, frequently a very simple sentiment in commonplace rhyme such as ‘Our contract was heaven’s act’, or ‘God above increase our love’. These rings are still described as ‘posy rings’.

The findings of modern archaeology and the presence of rings bearing this design in museum collections confirm that their use was widespread geographically and popular for hundreds of years. Fede rings dating to the 12th and 13th centuries have been found in Britain. One example bears the inscription “I H S NAZARENVS” which is read as “Jesus of Nazareth”. The description of this ring in a publication of the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford, the oldest museum in England, includes the comment that “the name of Jesus was often invoked as a magical charm against certain ailments, such as muscular spasms.” (Ashmolean, 84) Given the focus here, it is tempting to consider an alternative possibility that the ring may have been worn by a nun. The Danish National Museum of Copenhagen has in its collection a fede ring dug from the ground in Alborg, Jutland which has been dated to the 16th century. The most charming find of the Internet search was record of the fede ring held by the British Maritime Museum in London. It is one of a pair exchanged by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) and Emma, Lady Hamilton (circa 1765-1815). It was worn by Nelson at the time of his death. Lady Hamilton’s ring is in the collection of the Royal Navel Museum, Portsmouth.

Perhaps the most curious reference to fede rings is found in the Canadian Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. Carol Mason’s article describes rings found at archaeological sites of Jesuit missionary activity in North American in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Apparently the Jesuits used rings as part of their strategy to spread Christianity by using them in trade and in giving them as ritual symbols of conversion. A letter written by a missionary to his superior in Paris contains a list of necessary supplies. The list includes “six gross of finger rings.” (Mason, 4) Rings found at known Jesuit sites vary widely in design, including rings bearing royal portraits, crowns, fleur-de-lys or “the clasped hands”. (Mason, 1)

To bring this history well into our present time one must note the connection of the fede design to the traditional Claddagh ring so popular in Ireland and North America today. While a great deal of folklore and interpretation of symbols surround the origin of this design, many Irish historians and scholars of the decorative arts believe that the mani in fede design may be the direct ancestor of the Claddagh ring. The bezel of this ring bears a central heart shape supported by a hand on each side and is surmounted by a crown. It is said to have originated with Robert Joyce who learned the trade of goldsmith in Algiers and upon returning to his native town of Claddagh, Ireland in the late 17th century presented the first ring of this design to his childhood sweetheart.

Having traced the historical use of the fede design and cited evidence of its popularity through the centuries, it is necessary to consider the use of rings in religious profession rites and specifics of their use in the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer. Formalized rituals for the dedication of virgins originated in the early centuries of the Church. “The first of these which survives is a description of the dedication of Marcellina, the sister of Ambrose (d.397)…” (Foley, 14) This rite included the presentation of a ring and since the fourteenth century, most professed nuns and sisters are given rings as a sign of their complete dedication to Christ. (Murphy, 506)

In response to my query, Sr. Anna Maria Ceneri of the Redemptoristine community in Scala, Italy, first monastery of the Order of the Most Holy Redeemer, provided informative documentation concerning the presentation of a ring at profession and the first use of the fede ring design by the Order.

The first clothing in the Order took place on the
6th of August in 1731. After the departure of the
Crostarosa sisters [expulsion of foundress
Maria Celeste from Scala in 1733], the sisters
professed the new Rule on the 18th of June, 1733.
At that time they began to wear the ring. From the
account book for June 1733, we know that the sisters
bought 19 fedi (rings) of gold (two ounces in weight)
and 5 of silver for the “cost of 42 ducats, three tari
and fifty grana ”. The sisters paid 20 ducats and a
benefactor covered the remainder. [Note: tari and
grana refer to coins in use at the time within the
Kingdom of Two Sicilies.]

The ring has constantly been used since the time
of Mother Celeste, in fact, the blessing of the ring
is found in the Ceremonial of Profession in Scala.
This blessing is also found in the Cava Codex and in
the Foggia Codex I. [Note: These are the earliest
written Rules of the Order.]

Mother Maria Celeste did wear a ring, because
that is indicated in the ceremonials of Cava and
Foggia and is also seen in the first painted portrait
in Foggia.

Regarding the significance of the engraving,
I cannot tell you anything. I have always thought
that it is to signify charity. (Ceneri)

This information anchors the traditional use of a mani in fede ring for presentation at profession in the very earliest days of the Order. The wide use of the fede ring in secular society as a symbol of the bonds of love and trust in marriage seems to have made this design a natural choice. Certainly the Dialogues of Maria Celeste Crostarosa, foundress of the Redemptoristines, are replete with spousal love imagery, imagery echoed in the Profession Rite itself. The traditional inscription in Redemptoristine rings, “Ego te sponsabo” (I will espouse you.), also follows a popular custom of the period, that of the posy ring. Betrothal and promise rings were frequently inscribed with a simple poetic line declaring love, fidelity, or friendship.

When asked about the use of this ring design in the Order, one Italian sister replied, “I always understood that it was the marriage ring of the time of Maria Celeste.” In Italy, even now, the simple word ‘fede’ is commonly used to refer to a wedding ring. This matrimonial symbol, this emblem of mutual trust, promise, commitment and donation of self would have been a most natural choice for Maria Celeste. However, it is clear in her Dialogues, the record of her mystical conversations with Jesus, that the spousal relationship meant in the symbol refers not only to that between the nun and Jesus, her beloved spouse. By the union of Jesus Christ with all of humanity in the Incarnation, the human enfleshment of the third person of the Trinity, anyone committed to and united with him is therefore to also be united to all of humanity. One cannot exist without the other. The consequence of true espousal to Jesus Christ, according to Celeste’s mystical insight, is to become another Christ. Excerpts from the first of her Dialogues written in 1724, seven years before the founding of the Order, clearly explain that to be espoused to the Son of God is to be espoused to all whom he loves.

If anyone should ask you who I am, answer that I am
pure love… I…will bring about in you authentic
reflections of my very self and you will become my own
likeness…For this reason I want you to be espoused
to all souls…And since I am your spouse, you have been
espoused to goodness and love itself…I want you to be
espoused also to the love of all the delights centered in
my goodness, and through these delights, to be
espoused to all those souls who are mine.
(Crostarosa, 2, #3)

Since I have been long awaiting you in my heart…
so that I might espouse you and in you espouse all
the souls of my Church… I want you also to have
the same love for all these people that I have
deep in my heart for you…I extend my right hand
over you and hug you to my heart, so that in
embracing you, I, at the same time, enfold
in my heart all of my creatures. And with a
unitive kiss, you, too, must give these souls, who
are my heart, a kiss of love…The souls of this
community in which you live must be your
dear spouses and you will love them and be
forever dedicated to their special good. I turn
them over to your care, my beloved, for they
are your spouses. From now on, you shall
love them in me and me in them.
(Crostarosa, 9, #14)

By union with Jesus Christ Redemptoristine nuns are to participate so fully in his nature that they become ‘living memories’; become transformed into his likeness in the way long-married couples begin to resemble each other and are able to complete their partner’s sentences in speaking.

For a Redemptoristine, the mani in fede ring she receives at solemn profession, is a sign of God’s promise uttered in Hosea 2:21-22:
I will espouse you to me forever:
I will espouse you in right and in justice;
in love and in mercy.
I will espouse you in fidelity,
and you shall know the Lord.

The clasped hands signify the mutuality of the promise. But the connection of two beings suggested by the design speaks also of the power of that primary relationship to affect all other relationships; that espousal to this ONE naturally means espousal to ALL in “mutual charity and union of hearts.” (Constitution, 7)


Ashmolean Museum, Department of Antiquities. Treasure Annual Report 2002.
Oxford, England, 2002.

Ceneri, Sister Anna Maria. Response About the Ring. E-mail letter. Scala, Italy: Redemptoristine Monastery of Scala, 3/18/06.

Crostarosa, Maria Celeste. Dialogues. Trans. Rev. Joseph Oppitz. Esopus, NY: Redemptoristine Nuns, 1982.

Foley, Edward. Rites of Religious Profess: Pastoral Introduction and Complete Text.
Chicago, Illinois: Liturgy Training Publications, Inc., 1989.

McNamara, Jo Ann Kay. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millenia.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Mason, Carol. “Jesuit Rings, Jesuits, and Chronology” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. Fall, 2003.

Murphy, F.X. “Rings” New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. XII, p. 504. New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967.

Newman, Harold. An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry. London: Thames and Hudson,

Order of the Most Holy Redeemer (OssR). Constitution and Statutes. Rome, Italy, 1985.

Shermak, R.M. “Religious Habit” New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. XII, p. 286. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967.


Suzanne C. Shaffer, M.Ed. said...

Dear Sister,
I found you blog by searching in Google for the term "Ego te Sponsabo" which is in the ring I have worn at 2 different times in my life - First as a Sister Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Immaculata (1993-2001) and now as a wife (as of last Monday).

Of course the St. Alphonsus Ligouri connection (the patron of our community) would be the thing that allowed me to find your blog. I was really interested to see that you are now a contemplative nun after being a wife and mother...My journey has taken me in the opposite direction. It just shows that that Lord guides us to spend out love in varied and sacred ways... a true mystery.

I loved finding your blog because it brought me such wonderful memories of my time as an IHM and how we loved St. Alphonsus and the Redemptorist priests and brothers we knew!!

Many thanks for your prayers for us and the world and for your work which brings balance back to the craziness of our hectic lives.


Lab of Ornithology said...

Dear Sister,

My name is Mary Ippolito, you might have known my mother Ethel. My brother Joseph was a seminarian at the Mount. Anyway, I just found your blog about the Fede ring. My husband gave me one for our recent anniversary. I didn't know anything about it and I googled "Two Hands Clasping Ring" which gave me the name of Fede Ring and then I googled "History of Fede Ring" and I got you!! Thank you for this blog. I have very fond memories of the Mount and especially of Sister Maria Regina, who was a very dear woman.

Thank you again!!

Mary Ippolito Winston