Donna Distefano is a master goldsmith and independent scholar who has lectured internationally on the specific symbolism of gold and gems referenced in the work of Dante Alighieri. She is currently recreating jewels from antiquity for the The Met Store.
The tradition of exchanging rings as symbols of devotion began during the classical period of ancient Greece and flourished throughout the Roman Empire, embedding this emblematic expression firmly in civilized society. It has continued to this day; the exchange of rings shows no signs of waning. While the modes of fashion may bring one particular type of stone into popularity, the historical truth as evidenced by master works of art indicates that colorful arrays of gemstones were the expectation of betrothed couples long before the diamond came to dominance.
I have sat with hundreds of betrothed-to-be couples and guided them through the process of choosing the rings that will ultimately represent their love for each other. Some couples select a ring with the aim of demonstrating the grandeur of their love, while others embrace the authenticity of their unique romance with symbols. The techniques I use vary only slightly from those of my Renaissance predecessors, and I cannot help but imagine the source from which their inspiration was derived.
In A Goldsmith in His Shop by Petrus Christus, we see the allure of gems and jewelry rendered in painstaking detail. The elements represented in this Northern Renaissance masterwork present a remarkably accurate depiction of what a working jewelry atelier can and should be. The elegant couple, the scales of balance, the assortment of finished jewels leap from the canvas into my daily life.
In Fra Filippo Lippi’s Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement, the two figures may be Lorenzo di Ranieri Scolari and Angiola di Bernardo Sapiti, who were married about 1439. The woman’s sleeve embroidered with letters spelling lealta (faithful), is observed by a man—her betrothed or lucky possessor?—appearing at a window.
In Rogier van der Weyden’s Francesco d’Este, the hammer and ring may be jousting prizes or symbols of power.
Long before the Renaissance bloomed in Italy, the poet Dante Alighieri incorporated the profound symbolism of gemstones and precious metals in his masterpiece La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) of 1320. Alighieri uses gemstones to represent beauty and virtue in Canto 15 of Paradiso:
Indeed, I do beseech you, living topaz,
set in this precious jewel as a gem:
fulfill my longing—let me know your name. *
In Canto 30, angels are compared to rubies and the blessed are the gold in which they are set:
Out of this river issued living sparks,
And on all sides sank down into the flowers,
Like unto rubies that are set in gold *
In Paradiso, Dante presents a new side of beauty: art, divinity, light, and love. These concepts are as timeless as love itself.
The symbolism of gemstones and precious metals represents love in many forms. In the place where two hands touch during the exchange of rings, we get a glimpse of the divine: the aspiration toward love without measure, valued beyond the physical attributes, transformed by the hand of the artist. The rings effortlessly move us into the eternal realm. They are cherished by generations and immortalized in art. Such is the work of the goldsmith, to bring this symbol of devotion into the physical realm. This was as true during the medieval era and the Renaissance as it is today.
This month marks the 20-year anniversary of a romantic event that took place at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on February 14, 1998. In the winter cold, after a couple dined at the nearby Giovanni VentiCinque restaurant, a young man got down on one knee at midnight in Central Park outside of the Temple of Dendur. He proposed marriage…to me. I said yes to my husband Sean Thomas.
A Museum romance, years earlier we were both struck by the same bolt of lightning while passing each other in the back hallways, behind the magnificent galleries of art. Working in different departments, it took a few years for us to get acquainted. I was Senior Goldsmith in the Reproduction Studio. Sean was a craftsman in the Plexiglass Shop. He was shy and we never spoke. I waited for a formal introduction by my then bosses Jackie and Liberty, who played Cupid. Our private courtship was in Central Park with picnics during our breaks.
Sean commissioned our engagement ring from my colleague and friend in the Museum, goldsmith Pamela Farland. The ring, made of 22 karat gold, diamond, and rubies, is my symbol of falling in love at The Met. It is a constant reminder of our quiet walks in Central Park, and the butterflies in my stomach that I felt every time I saw him walking through the galleries, or meeting him on the front steps. The spirit of Venus and Cupid by Lorenzo Lotto (in gallery 607), along with countless depictions of love, courtship, and betrothal were and are still with us every day.
*Translations from Paradiso into English by Longfellow and Hollander.