Index of Medieval Art

Five Gold Rings

by Henry Schilb

You know them by heart. You can hear them coming. Four notes, with six geese a-leading the way. Only four notes, but you can’t wait to belt them out. And then it happens:

“Five go-old rings!”

Those gold rings you love to sing about have been around since at least the eighteenth century, when the lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball” were printed in a little book called Mirth without Mischief (Fig. 1). [1]

Fig. 1. Five Gold Rings from “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball” in Mirth without Mischief (London: Printed by J. Davenport, George’s Court, for C. Sheppard, No. 8, Aylesbury Street, Clerkenwell, [ca. 1780 or 1800?]), 9.

No music was printed with the lyrics in Mirth without Mischief, but the words are roughly the same as you remember them, possibly representing the oldest printed evidence of the carol. The earliest known version of many different versions to come, it differs from the carol as we usually hear it today only in the order of the gifts from the ninth through the twelfth days. Partridge? Check. And two turtle doves, three French hens, and so on up to the usual seven swans a-swimming and eight maids a-milking, but then there follow nine drummers drumming instead of nine ladies dancing, ten pipers piping instead of ten lords a-leaping, eleven dancing ladies (probably preferable to the usual eleven pipers piping), and no fewer than twelve lords a-leaping instead of twelve drummers drumming. That’s just a lot of leaping lords, I must say! You’ll also notice that the birds on the fourth day were called “colly birds” back then, not “calling birds.” “Colly” just meant black like coal, so what we have is a flock of blackbirds. But all five gold rings were there already. Wait…is it “gold rings” or “golden rings”? I’ve heard it both ways, sometimes simultaneously. When exactly did “five gooooo-ooooold rings” become “five golll-dennn rings”? The version in Mirth without Mischief is clear about my true love’s having given me “gold” rings, not “golden” rings. It really doesn’t matter, I suppose, but the word “golden” does seem to devalue the gift. I mean, if the rings are only “golden” and not actual gold, then why do I want forty of them? Perhaps it’s just that even two notes per syllable is too much melisma for some carolers, so they need the extra syllable to sing.

Maybe I ought to get to the point. Typically, in this space, someone from the Index of Medieval Art will explore a topic relating to iconography, some theme or scene rendered in one or more media, perhaps a subject relevant to the season. This time, however, I want to look at a category of object. Yes, I’m going to show you five gold rings, each one cataloged in the Index of Medieval Art database. Of course, if you’ve ever done the math, you’ll be aware that my true love intends to send me not just five gold rings but a total of forty by the time Epiphany rolls around on the sixth of January. I always imagine the narrator of the carol wearing them all at once, or as many as possible, like Liberace or Ringo Starr. Presumably, when Ringo sings this carol, Barbara Bach is the “true love” in question. I wonder, has she ever given Ringo five gold rings, or would that be a bit “coals to Newcastle”? Er, Liverpool?

Really, we should be grateful that the familiar version of the carol includes inanimate objects on the fifth day. According to one reported version of the lyrics, instead of gold rings, you could have had “five hares running” to deal with (forty total, and…well, they’re hares, so, you know). [2] In that version, your true love also gives you four ducks quacking on the fourth day. But that version isn’t really a song. It’s a game of forfeits—in which each player takes a turn reciting the whole list and adding to it—a game that seems to be the origin of the structure of the lyrics of the carol.[3] And there’s another theory regarding how the fifth day wasn’t always about jewelry. It’s possible that our gold rings are a corruption of “goldspinks,” a Scottish word for goldfinches.[4] I suppose that would make more sense, given all the other birds my true love is sending me.

But I still prefer the familiar version of the carol that emerged in 1909, when Frederic Austin published his arrangement.[5] And the “five gold rings” part that’s so fun to belt out? It was Austin who composed those two famous bars and added them to his arrangement of the traditional melody, which was copyrighted by the publisher![6] It was also Austin who added the word “On” to the beginning of each verse. Interestingly, for the twelfth day, Austin doubled down on the melisma, so the final verse calls for the word “gold” to be sung with a flourish of four notes rather than the two usually sung today.[7]

Fig. 2. Openwork ring, 550–650, diam. 1.7 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 1987.272).

OK, but what about those five gold rings I promised to show you? Whenever I hear “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the rings I picture in my head are simple bands of gold, like the one Bilbo stole from Gollum in those Peter Jackson movies. But a gold ring can also be delicate openwork like this example at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Fig. 2, Index of Medieval Art system number 144086).[8]

On this early Byzantine ring, we find two birds (shall we imagine that they’re turtle doves?) flanking a vase among a scrolling grapevine. The crafting of this ring combined several methods. The birds, vase, and leaves appear to have been cut from a sheet of gold. The vine is filigree, delicate work created with gold wire.[9] The bunches of grapes were created by granulation, a technique in which tiny spheres of metal are fused together.[10]

As intricate as the openwork may be, this ring is still only a circle, a hoop without a bezel. The bezel is the “top” part of the ring that’s displayed on the back of the hand. A bezel can be flat, raised, incised, or filled with a gem.[11] There is even such a thing as a reversible bezel. The ring in figures 3a and 3b (Index of Medieval Art System number 60117), possibly from Syria and now at the Benaki Museum in Athens, has a swivel bezel with an image of Thekla of Iconium flanked by crosses and animals (probably lions) on the obverse (Fig. 3a).[12] On the reverse is an archangel holding a cross-staff and a globe (probably, though it’s hard to make out) (Fig. 3b).

Fig. 3a. Thekla of Iconium with Wild Beasts on the obverse of the reversible bezel of a gold ring, sixth or seventh century, bezel width 1.3 cm, hoop diam. 2.5 cm (Benaki Museum, Athens ΓΕ 2107).
Fig. 3b. Archangel on reverse of bezel (Benaki Museum, Athens ΓΕ 2107).

If you were to inspect the edge of the bezel, you would find a Greek letter inscribed on each of the six sides not connected to the hoop. The characters ͵ϚΡΛ on three sides of the bezel are numerals, possibly giving the year 6130 of the Alexandrian Era (638/9 CE), or possibly having an apotropaic significance, while the other three letters—ΧΜΓ—are probably an abbreviation of Χριστὸν Μαρία γεννᾷ (Mary gives birth to Christ) or possibly something like Χριστός Μιχαήλ Γαβριήλ (Christ, Michael, Gabriel).[13]

Although the space on any ring is limited, not every inscription on every ring is a cipher. For example, in the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University Bloomington, there is a Roman marriage-ring with a very straightforward message (Fig. 4, Index of Medieval Art system number 143736).[14] Below clasped hands in relief are the raised letters of the Greek word ΟΜΟΝΟΙΑ (ὁμόνοια, meaning concord, harmony, or like-mindedness).

Fig. 4. Gold ring with clasped hands inscribed ΟΜΟΝΟΙΑ, third or fourth century, hoop diam. 1.9 cm (Eskenazi Museum of Art, Bloomington, Indiana 65.87.31).

The image and inscription were possibly created with a stamp or by working a small sheet of gold into a die.[15] The tiny relief was then applied to the gold band. The image is simple, and the significance of the word ὁμόνοια is quite clear.

The same word appears on the bezel of a somewhat later marriage-ring from the Eastern Mediterranean and now at the British Museum (Fig. 5a, Index of Medieval Art system number 62961).[16] The inscription and all the images on this ring, on both the hoop and the bezel, are rendered in niello, a metalwork technique in which a black alloy is used to highlight an engraved or incised image.[17] On the bezel we find the inscription OMONV/A (ὁμόνυα, a variant spelling of ὁμόνοια), but instead of clasped hands above the inscription, we see the Virgin Mary and Christ crowning the couple getting married, so the ring bears a representation of the person who wore it! Above this scene is a star. Yes, there’s a star…on a gold ring…so that makes it a gold ring star. Get it? You see, it’s funny because “gold ring star” sounds sort of like “Ringo Starr,” but inside out…. No? Never mind.

Fig. 5a. Gold and niello marriage-ring, sixth or seventh century, hoop diam. 2.3cm, bezel diam. 1.8cm (British Museum AF.231).

There are two more stars on this ring. Among the scenes from the life of Christ around the octagonal hoop, and on either side of the Baptism, there are stars in two scenes pertinent to this discussion of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi (Fig. 5b).

Fig. 5b. Baptism and Adoration of the Magi on hoop of marriage-ring (British Museum AF.231).

Finally, the fifth gold ring that I want to show you is one of our Featured Works of Art for December 2021 (Fig. 6, Index of Medieval Art system number 200054). This Byzantine ring has been dated to ca. 900, but that date has been questioned.[18] There are niello crosses on the hoop, and on the bezel is a figure in enamel identified by name in niello as St. Nicholas. The image conforms to a familiar type, so we can recognize this figure as Nicholas of Myra. Yes, Virginia, he’s that St. Nicholas.[19]

And so, let St. Nicholas bring this story to a close. It remains only for me, on behalf of all the Index family, to wish you a joyous new year. May 2022 treat you like Ringo Starr…with peace and love.

Fig. 6. Saint Nicholas on bezel of gold ring, ca. 900, hoop diam. 2 cm (Benaki Museum, Athens ΓΕ 1833).


[1] Mirth without Mischief (London: Printed by J. Davenport, George’s Court, for C. Sheppard, No. 8, Aylesbury Street, Clerkenwell, [1780 or 1800?]), 5–16.

[2] Thomas Hughes, “The Ashen Fagot,” in Household Friends for Every Season, ed. James Thomas Fields (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), 34.

[3] Hugh Keyte, Andrew Parrott, and Clifford Bartlett, eds., The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 229.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Frederic Austin, arr., The Twelve Days of Christmas (Traditional Song) (London: Novello, 1909).

[6] The copyright notice is at the bottom of page 2 of the sheet music, and the “five gold rings” motif composed by Austin first appears on page 4. Austin, The Twelve Days of Christmas, 2, 4. See also Keyte, Parrott, and Bartlett, The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols, 229.

[7] Austin, The Twelve Days of Christmas, 11.

[8] Ioli Kalavrezou et al., Byzantine Women and Their World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 249, no. 141.

[9] Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “filigree,” accessed 14 December 2021,

[10] Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “granulation,” accessed 14 December 2021,

[11] Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “ring,” accessed 14 December 2021,

[12] Robin Cormack and Maria Vassilaki, eds., Byzantium, 330–1453 (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2008), 416, no. 149.

[13] For interpretations of the inscription, see especially Manolis Hadzidakis, “Anneau byzantin du Musée Benaki,” Byzantinisch-neugriechische Jahrbücher 17 (1939–1943): 175–81; Electra Georgoula, ed., Greek Jewellery from the Benaki Museum Collections (Athens: Benaki Museum, Adam Editions, 1999), 316–17, no. 117; and Cormack and Vassilaki, Byzantium, 330–1453, 416, no. 149.

[14] Kalavrezou, Byzantine Women and Their World, 222, no. 121.

[15] For a description of these techniques, see Wolf Rudolf, A Golden Legacy: Ancient Jewelry from the Burton Y. Berry Collection at the Indiana University Art Museum (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 6.

[16] Cormack and Vassilaki, Byzantium, 330–1453, 416, no. 150.

[17] Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “niello,” accessed 14 December 2021,

[18] Benaki Museum, “Collections & Archives > Byzantine Art,” accessed 14 December 2021,

[19] Well, sort of. Readers curious about the journey of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Manhattan will want to track down a copy of Charles W. Jones, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). Although it’s a fairly old book now, and it was a bit flawed to begin with, it remains nonetheless an engrossing read, a good story well told.

Index Spotlight Series: Maria Alessia Rossi

This blog post is the first in a series focusing on members of the Index staff. Today we will be introducing Maria Alessia Rossi.

What is your background and specialization?

I joined the Index of Medieval Art initially as a Postdoctoral Researcher, and starting in September 2019, as an Art History Specialist. I earned my BA in History of Art from ‘La Sapienza’ University of Rome and my MA and PhD from The Courtauld Institute of Art. I work on medieval monumental art in the Byzantine and Slavic cultural spheres, cross-cultural contacts between the Eastern and Western Christian worlds, and the role of miracles in text and image.

Byzantine mosaic depicting Christ healing man with withered hand in the inner narthex of Chora Monastery in Turkey, dated between 1316 and 1321
Fig. 1. Christ healing of the man with the withered hand, inner narthex of Chora monastery (ca. 1316–21) © The Byzantine Legacy.

What research projects are you working on currently? 

For the Index, I research a wide range of medieval topics, but in my individual research and publications, I have been fascinated for a long time by the role of miracles in medieval society. During the Middle Ages, miracles played a crucial role in theology and propaganda, mirroring the needs, struggles, and desires of every social class. I have been surveying Christ’s miracles in late Byzantine churches in Constantinople, Mystras, Thessaloniki, Mount Athos, Ohrid, and Kastoria, and pairing the visual evidence with textual commissions, dealing with miracles of contemporary and older saints. The underlying question is what does the interconnectedness of visual and literary evidence dealing with miracles tell us about the contemporary social, religious, and political circumstances? One major outcome of this is a monograph tentatively titled Visualizing Christ’s Miracles: Art, Theology, and Court Culture in Late Byzantium.

Another topic I am passionate about is the rich, yet little-known art and architecture of Eastern Europe between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. Modern borders, patterns of polarizations, and ideological barriers have prevented scholars from seeing a fuller and broader picture of these regions. Yet their geographical, religious, political, and cultural histories prove the interconnectedness of those territories at the crossroads of the Byzantine, Mediterranean, and Western European cultural spheres.

In this spirit, I co-founded the initiative North of Byzantium (NoB) with Alice I. Sullivan, a project sponsored by a 3-year grant from the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture, and the digital platform Mapping Eastern Europe. The aim is to place Eastern Europe on the map of art history by fostering a dialogue between scholars, promoting a sense of community, and facilitating research, teaching, and the study of its visual culture among students, teachers, scholars, and the wider public.

Screenshot of the Mapping Eastern Europe project with map of Europe and pins for locations
Fig. 2. Mapping Eastern Europe homepage,

What do you like best about working at Princeton?

What I like best about working at Princeton University, and specifically at the Index of Medieval Art, is the people! There is a unique and constant inflow of scholars and students from all over the world who come to use the Index card catalogue and database. As an Indexer, you learn about their fascinating work, you help them find new materials and discover the Index, and you get excited with them when they stumble across unexpected finds. Scholars also gather to attend the Index conference, and this is yet another opportunity to discover recent and original research and engage in exciting conversations. Every year we also see our medieval community growing, with the arrival of new students and fellows, coming in with new topics, questions, and iconographic riddles to be resolved!

What travel experience played a role in your becoming an art historian?

Ever since I was little, my parents have taken me along on their trips. But did our vacations include beaches or time off? No, they were an endless list of archaeological sites, museums, and cities to explore. This usually meant that lunches had to be delayed to accommodate the busy schedule that ended up always (and I do mean always) including the main archaeological sites between noon and two p.m. under the burning hot sun! You would expect this to have turned me away from art and archaeology, yet here we are…. In time, these trips became research-focused, and the schedule became packed with Byzantine art and architecture. On one of these occasions, we made it to the remote location of a fortress built in the fourteenth century by the Serbian king Milutin. Of course, we were exhausted, and it was the middle of a very hot summer day, but I was absolutely overjoyed (as you can see in the photo). At that moment I knew there was no going back!

Maria Alessia Rossi surrounded by bricks and architectural details at the Novo Brdo in Serbia.
Fig. 3. Maria Alessia Rossi standing in the fortress of Novo Brdo.

What do you like best about being back on campus in person?

The best part of being on campus is resuming the conversations and debates that make the Index thrive, and with it, the Middle Ages. Screens and planned meetings have not allowed for many of the spontaneous interactions that are at the heart of what the Index is about. When we are cataloguing, working on taxonomy, or implementing changes in our browse lists, we encounter issues and questions that benefit from broader conversations with the other specialists at the Index, such as how do we differentiate between James Major, James Minor, and James Brother of the Lord, or would it be better to use scroll or roll in our controlled vocabulary? We have weekly meetings where we discuss for hours (not ideal with zoom-fatigue during the pandemic!) the topics that we have encountered during the week. And when you visit us at the Index, you may even catch us in the middle of impromptu conversations in the corridor, sipping cups of coffee or tea, and chatting about the role of Tristan’s dog, Hodain, in the Legend of Tristan and Isolde, or about what work of art we should catalogue next and why.

Coffee or tea?

It’s tough…. Being Italian I would be tempted to say that nothing beats a good cappuccino! However, I do love my tea. And by “tea” I mean any kind of infusion, including Earl Grey, matcha, mint tea, hibiscus, jasmine, and the Tough Chai from Small World, our local coffee shop. I love trying new teas and talking about tea. So yeah, probably my answer would have to be tea!