Papal jewellery is a type of gemstone jewellery owned by the pope; it is of utmost importance and shows respect, depicting the leadership skills and power behind any great pope. Antique shop, M.S Antiques, based in New Orleans, currently owns some of the most famous papal jewellery pieces, including an 18k gold pectoral cross belonging to Pope Paul VI, in addition to one of his platinum rings with over 75 carats of diamonds. Recently, these holy jewels came onto the market, being offered for sale at a combined total of $1.9 million. Bill Rau, the owner of the antique business, decided to sell the pieces for the staggeringly high amount, due to them not only being incredibly fine pieces of jewellery, but them also being historically significant and a rare find, considering Papal jewellery scarcely comes onto the market. In this article, we look at the most renowned and respected items of Papal jewellery that have traditionally been worn year upon year.
The Piscatory Ring, more often referred to as “The Fisherman’s Ring”, is a famous piece of jewellery worn by the pope. Although traditionally worn daily, it is no longer compulsory for the ring to be worn at all, often only coming out at formal celebrations and blessings, often worn over the pope’s glove. Displaying an image of St Peter, who is referred to in the Bible as “a fisher of men”, casting his nets, it is no surprise where the renowned piece of jewellery gained its name. Each pope carries a distinct ring, often engraved with a Latin version of their own name. Throughout history, the ring has been used to create the wax seal on formal documents, proving to the recipient that they were in fact, from the pope. As each pope has his own ring designed, the ring is destroyed upon either his death or resignation, meaning that the ring is only in service for the length of his leadership. Traditionally, the reason the ring was destroyed when its owner was no longer in power to ensure that no fraudulent wax seals were stamped if the ring came into the wrong hands. Although traditionally broken apart with a hammer, today the most common method is for a cross to be chiselled onto the upper part of the ring as a symbol of the end of the papacy, instead of it being destroyed.
Weighing 35 grams of pure gold, Pope Benedict XVI’s ring was said to be inspired by a painting by Michelangelo. The lengthy process involved more than 200 sketches and drawings in the design stage alone, taking eight artisans working 15 hours a day for two weeks to get the piece to completion. The complex design of the ring depicts St Peter, along with the inscription of the Popes official Latin title, “Benedictus XVI”. Elliptical in shape, the ring is thought to represent the piazza in front of St Peter’s Basilica, in the Vatican City.
Each Pope wears a Pectoral Cross as an outward symbol of their prestige and power. Also often worn by cardinals and bishops, similar to beaded jewellery, the cross is worn on a chain or cord around the neck, resting on the chest, close to the heart. Pope Leo III was one of the first popes to wear a pectoral cross, starting the tradition in the year of 811, after being given it as a gift from the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nicephorus.
Although traditionally made of gold with added jewels and precious stones, Pope Francis decided to break the usual trend and in striking contrast, chose to instead go with one of silver. After being offered a gold cross when he became pope, he chose to instead, continue wearing the simple, silver cross that he had been wearing for many years previous, as arch bishop in Argentina, where the cross had been gifted to him by a friend. Simple in design, depicting an image of Jesus holding a lamb, Francis believed the image represented the leadership skills of Jesus Christ, something that he too wanted to excel in with his papal duties.
Although no longer worn today, the Papal Tiara was once part of the traditional papal attire. Coming to light in the 8th century, the tiara was worn at ceremonial processions, coming out on special occasions where the Pope was carried on the Sedia Gestatoria, as well as at Easter and Christmas celebration, where he gave his traditional blessings.
Although often referred to as a single ‘Papal Tiara’, there has been much more than just one throughout the ages, with 22 remaining in existence to this day. Many of the earlier Papal Tiaras ending up being destroyed, or in some circumstances even seized by invaders such as Berthier’s Army in 1798. Pope Clement VII was believed to have melted down all the previous tiaras in existence melted down, in an attempt to raise enough money to pay the ransom demanded by the army of Charles V.
The earliest of the Tiaras to still exist to today was made for Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century, which somehow seemed to survive, despite Pope Clement supposedly destroying all the existing ones. Often Tiaras were donated to the papacy by renowned world leaders such as William I and Queen Isabella II of Spain. One of the Tiara’s, gifted kindly by Napoleon I of France, was said to be made from elements of some of the former tiaras that were thought to have been destroyed and ended up being given to Pius VII as a wedding gift.
Although today, it is not seen as compulsory practice for the Pope to wear any specific jewellery if he so-wishes, the traditional pieces still hold a dear place in the heart, carrying with each of them an ancient story.