Holy Ring: The Wedding Band of the Blessed Virgin Mary
On July 29, scores of pilgrims come to the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Perugia, Italy, to see and venerate a sacred object.
On July 29 and Sept. 12, scores of pilgrims come to the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Perugia, Italy, to see and venerate a sacred object — a relic said to be the Blessed Virgin Mary’s wedding ring.
Although the residents of Perugia knew about this ring for several hundreds of years, those outside the city were unaware of it until the writings of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich in the 19th century.
Bedridden for many years, she described a vision she experienced on July 29, 1821:
“I saw the Blessed Virgin’s wedding ring; it is neither of silver nor of gold, nor of any other metal; it is dark in color and iridescent; it is not a thin narrow ring, but rather thick and at least a finger broad. I saw it smooth and yet as if covered with little regular triangles in which were letters. On the inside was a flat surface. The ring is engraved with something. I saw it kept behind many locks in a beautiful church. Devout people about to be married take their wedding rings to touch it.”
Less than a week later, on Aug. 3, Blessed Anne Catherine had another vision of the ring:
“Today I saw a festival in a church in Italy where the wedding ring is to be found. It seemed to me to be hung up in a kind of monstrance that stood above the tabernacle. There was a large altar there, magnificently decorated; one saw deep into it through much silverwork. I saw many rings being held against the monstrance. During the festival, I saw Mary and Joseph appearing in their wedding garments on each side of the ring, as if Joseph were placing the ring on the Blessed Virgin’s finger. At the same time, I saw the ring shining and as if in movement.”
The Ring’s Location
Where is this “Holy Ring,” popularly known as the Santo Anello, and traditionally venerated as the one St. Joseph gave to Mary at their wedding? It is approximately 12 miles from Assisi in the city of Perugia. There, the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, consecrated in 1118 by the reigning pope, contains the Santo Anello. Since 1488, the ring has been in a cathedral chapel dedicated to it. And the ring is easily traced back to centuries earlier.
The elaborately decorated chapel was originally dedicated to St. Bernardino of Siena, then appropriately rededicated to St. Joseph after his feast was put on the town calendar in 1479. It was again rededicated for the Santo Anello a year later in 1488. The ring had been in Perugia since 1473 when it was removed from the town of Chiusi, 30 miles southwest, and given to the city magistrate, who had it placed in the chapel in the Palazzo dei Priori. With a dispute between Chiusi and Perugia over which place was going to keep the Holy Ring, Pope Sixtus IV settled it in favor of Perugia, where it was officially moved from the chapel in the palazzo to the cathedral.
Before coming to Perugia, the ring had already been in Chiusi for several centuries. Writings by that town’s chancellor report that the relic had been in the town for 484 years before its move. While in Chiusi the ring had been transferred more than once — the city’s Cathedral of San Secondiano was one of the places, while another, by order of the bishop, became the Church of San Francesco in 1420. Then came the move to Perugia.
There is a bit more to the story that adds to the tradition: In the mid-18th century, a priest discovered an 11th-century codex in the Angelica Library in Rome and with permission published what he found. The manuscript recounts how, in 985, a trusted goldsmith bought precious jewelry from a Roman Jew who had recently returned from the Middle East. After the purchase, the Jewish traveler gave the goldsmith a modest stone ring and, as was written in the story, told him, “This is the ring with which Joseph married Mary of Nazareth. It was handed down to me from my ancestors and although we do not adhere to Christianity, we have always preserved it with devotion. I've been wanting to give it to Christians for some time. Who better than you could keep it with honor? Put it in a worthy place and be devoted to it.”
The goldsmith was a doubter and kept the ring out of sight, but then circumstances considered miraculous — his son died and then came back to life for a short time with the message that the ring was genuine — persuaded him to believe and to turn it over to a church in Chiusi.
The Holy Ring
In keeping with the humble life of Mary and Joseph, the Santo Anello is not an elaborate jewel-encrusted ring. Instead, it is a ring fashioned of beautiful translucent stone that goes from a dark amber or yellow in low light to look milky white in the sunlight. The Cathedral of San Lorenzo reported that a gemological analysis in 2004 determined the ring is chalcedony and “given the constructive characteristics, seems rather to be probably dating back to the first century, apparently coming from the East.”
The chalcedony family is made up of semi-precious gemstones known in those early times in Jerusalem. They surely had a distinctive meaning. There is evidence in St. John’s description of the heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation 21:18-20, where the celestial city’s walls are described as being built of jewel-like stones beginning with jasper and including, among others, cornelian, agate and chrysoprase. These all belong to the same chalcedony family.
Back in Perugia, since 1517, this Holy Ring, the Santo Anello, has been kept in the same gold and silver reliquary specifically fashioned for it by master goldsmiths Federico del Roscetto and his son Cesarino. The reliquary looks like a monstrance, with carvings, figures and ornamentation. It is among the masterworks of Italian Renaissance goldsmiths.
The Holy Ring has been suspended within it from an ornate gilded silver crown since 1716. During most of the year, the reliquary is protected within two iron and wood safes high above the altar and remains unseen behind curtains. Because of the elaborate protection, it takes 14 keys to open the safe and chest. The keys are shared among four religious and municipal institutions.
When the Holy Ring is displayed for veneration, the reliquary is then lowered to the altar by a device that was installed in the 18th century. The cathedral describes it as being “in the shape of a silver cloud.”
This official display of the Holy Ring happens twice a year on official occasions. The first time is July 29-30, the date the Santo Anello was transferred from the chapel in the palazzo to the chapel in the cathedral in 1488. The second time is on Sept. 12, the Memorial of the Most Holy Name of Mary.
Fittingly, the dates relate to Blessed Anne Catherine’s two visions, which happened on July 29 and Aug. 3 — significant times for the Holy Ring. In Consecration to St. Joseph, Father Calloway writes that, unknown to her, “these dates coincide with the time of the year when pilgrims visit the Cathedral in Perugia as they make their way to Assisi for the annual celebration of the Feast of the Holy Angels of the Portiuncula on Aug. 2.”
At the same time in late July, large groups of couples, married and soon-to-be married, come to venerate the ring. As Father Calloway explains, couples are allowed “to touch their wedding rings to the Santo Anello to receive a blessing on their marriage. Blessed Anne Catherine apparently witnessed this happening in her visions!”
The Holy Ring can sometimes be shown other times in an exhibit “linked to particular events of the Perugian church” and with a request that must always be made to the local municipality.
The cathedral’s chapel also has the painting Marriage of the Virgin, done in 1825 by Jean-Baptiste Wicar. But this was not the original. The original painting in the Cappella del Santo Anello, Chapel of the Holy Ring, was painted by Perugino at the turn of the 16th century, a few years after the Holy Ring was brought to the cathedral. It looks quite like Raphael’s better-known and more popular Marriage of the Virgin, completed nearly the same time in 1504 — both show Joseph about to place the wedding ring on Mary’s finger in a nearly “twin” scene. It is believed that Raphael was inspired by Perugino’s work version to do his own version. Perugino’s painting was expropriated by Napoleon Bonaparte and is now in a museum in France.
Most importantly, the cathedral states that this ring has become a “symbol” referring to the historic occasion of “the marriage of Joseph and Mary, cradle and custody of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, source, for the believer of grace and blessing. Therefore the cathedral of Perugia, in continuity with the noble tradition of piety that has accompanied the protection of this jewel over the centuries, transfigured into ‘Santo Anello,’ preserves it with care and offers it for veneration, on special occasions, as a ‘memorial’ of the participation of the union of Mary and Joseph in the mystery of the incarnation, and, by extension, as a sign of marital fidelity, which makes every marriage the symbol of God's love for humanity, a source of fruitfulness and of life.”