Information about the Papal Ring from Father Richard Kunst, Curator
There is a bit of mystery to this type of papal ring, but most tend to believe they were not actually worn by the pope, given the quantities produced and the inexpensive materials used. Actual “Fishermans’ rings” would have been much more lavish with the use of real gold and embedded precious minerals.
These rings are thought to have been given by the pope to a representative at functions, or to papal couriers who were delivering messages from him to other church figures or sovereigns. They were meant to be large, so as to act as a noticeable credential, and purposefully were made of gold gilt bronze so as not to have such intrinsic value they would be a temptation to thieves. They are decorated with the coats of arms of popes, the “triple crown” papal symbol and various other papal symbols identifying the reigning pope: this one bears the name of Pope Pius II. Because of their noticeable size they probably were not intended to be worn for any extended period.
From what I have read, there are about 100 of these rings known to exist, most of which are to be found in museums. Currently three are on display in the Vatican Museum and are featured below.
Almost all of these rings date back to the 15th century.
NOTE: These are not the fishermans’ rings, worn by popes, which are destroyed upon their deaths.
Pope Pius II
Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini was born to an aristocratic, if impoverished, Italian family, the oldest of eighteen children. While studying canon law in Siena and Florence, he simultaneously steeped himself in humanist culture, combining brilliant scholarship and loose living.
From 1431 – 1435, from the age of twenty-seven, Aeneas served as secretary to a cardinal at the Council of Basel which lasted from 1431 – 1449. This assignment lead to service for various other princes of the church. He traveled extensively on diplomatic missions and was known to be a brilliant orator and writer. He aligned himself with the anti-pope, Felix, and defended the authority of the council of Basel rather than the supreme authority of the pope, Eugene IV. The question of authority was an ongoing argument throughout both the Council of Constance and the Council of Basel.
Aeneas was well known for his literary gifts and wrote a novel based on the exploits of a close friend’s amorous adventures. He also wrote an erotic comedy.
By 1495, when he was forty years old, he had been reconciled with the pope, Eugene IV, abandoned his dissolute life that had included fathering several children, and after a serious illness, was ordained a priest. He soon retracted his conciliar position on the question of authority and came to believe in the absolute authority of the pontiff over a shared authority with the Council.
At fifty-three years of age, Piccolomini was elected pope taking the name of Pius II. He urged the church to “reject Aeneas and his former, dissolute life and accept Pius.”
While continuing voluminous writing, Pius’ papacy was characterized by his attempt and failure to mount a crusade against the Turks even going so far as to urge the Sultan, Mehmet II, to reject Islam and accept Christianity. A telling example of his motive was his creation of a medallion that showed him in full papal regalia, commanding his ship, lording it over the waves.
This significant gesture made it clear his dream was to convert, not to conquer.
The man whose secular life was so characterized by loose living chose an austere, morally exemplary life as a pontiff. He was known to be moderate, affable, indulgent and well loved. He loved nature and preferred to hold audiences under the trees or in some natural setting.
He founded several universities and continued to write prolifically. Though nepotism played a part in his papacy, at least the recipients were worthy of their offices.
A great disappointment of his papacy due to the energy he tied up in the crusade, was his inability to carry out much needed reform of the curia on which he had been working since his election.
His vision of a united, Christian Europe was an admirable one.