Hans Holbein the Younger
Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam Writing, 1523
"Holbein. Cranach. Grünewald: Masterpieces from the Kunstmuseum Basel" at Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel (2015).
As a happily married woman of two years, I discovered a crack in my engagement story with Renaissance roots. Back when my now-husband asked me to grow old with him, he couldn’t wait to tell me how he commissioned a jeweler friend to design a bespoke ring, hand-sculpted exclusively for me. It was a great story, and one I obnoxiously repeated to friends, relatives, and hairdressers. But then, I found some hard evidence to the contrary. On a visit to the home of my husband’s aunt Barbara, I learned I wasn’t the first person with a ring like this.
Aunt Barbara had a framed reproduction of Hans Holbein the Younger’s Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam Writing (1523) in her den, hanging between antique barrister bookshelves that looked like an extension of the famed Dutch Renaissance scholar’s study. As I skimmed the book titles, I spotted the poster; my eyes traced Erasmus’s profile down his beakish nose to his quill-wielding right hand. And then I saw it. On the fourth digit of the scholar’s left hand—the same finger where I wear my ring—he wears a thin gold band with a dark, square-cut jewel the same width as its setting.
My husband’s jig was up.
Hans Holbein, Study of the hands of Erasmus, c. 1523. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Erasmus stacked his ring above a bigger, blingier one, and you could almost miss the delicate loop—that is, unless you have a very personal reason not to. For a minute, I was flooded with all the bridezilla rage I never had when I was actually getting married. I was involuntarily thrust into an imaginary “Who Wore It Best” competition spanning five centuries. (To be clear: I wore it best.) I thought of the Renaissance man with scorn, convinced that I was clearly better equipped to rock a sapphire.
I called my husband into the den, pointed at the painting, and said, “Look!” “What?” he asked, confused about what he was supposed to see. “The ring—it looks just like mine!” I answered. “Oh yeah, kinda,” he replied, and promptly returned to the living room to impersonate distant family members with his uncles.
Kinda. Once my temporary wave of jealousy broke, I saw that he was right. Erasmus’s ring might resemble mine from the small sliver that is visible, and yes, we have the same precious blue gemstone. But the similarities may have ended there.
Without putting too much weight on a circlet of 18-karat white gold, my husband knew that a one-of-a-kind ring would help persuade me to get hitched. After six years of dating, I wasn’t iffy about him, but needed convincing to commit to the tight-in-the-collar institution of marriage. The wearable sculpture—instead of an obvious matrimonial bauble—was icing on the list of pros. Our marriage would be like my ring, I assured myself: conventional on its public-facing side, and wonderfully asymmetrical and knobby along the diameter tucked between my fingers.
It was impossible for our rings to be identical, but I still wanted art-historical proof. Luckily, prominent Renaissance portraitist Hans Holbein the Younger was famously detail-oriented; plus, as a major academic figure, Erasmus was depicted by two other artists, Albrecht Dürer and Quinten Massys. I was able to scour a whole image reel of Erasmus’s well-documented hands, including oil paintings, woodcuts, an etching, and a sketch.
I gathered the suspects for a virtual lineup on a web browser; scrolling between tabs, I reviewed them, one by one. Of the three Holbein paintings of Erasmus I studied, the one at the Louvre had my ring doppelganger, but another at the National Gallery in London showed only its blingier neighbor. And in a third portrait, a traditional three-quarter view likeness at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Erasmus’s hands were barely visible under a fur-lined robe.
In a Holbein woodcut of the scholar, an idealized image of Erasmus standing under a classical archway referencing his love of the ancient world, the Renaissance man is unadorned. And the thin sapphire ring doesn’t appear in his painted portrait by Massys or a Dürer etching, either.
Beyond the Louvre portrait, the only place my ring appeared was in a preparatory sketch of the scholar’s hands by Holbein. The artist clearly wanted to faithfully document the instrument Erasmus used to pen his humanist texts and retranslate the New Testament into Latin and Greek. But with Erasmus’s pinky slightly apart from his ring finger, I could see the band’s circumference: evenly smooth all around, without a single idiosyncratic bump. My ring was entirely mine. And I’m not sure why Erasmus’s ring was missing in those other portraits, but mine is here to stay.
If I had to share my ring’s likeness with anyone outside my matrimonial circle, Erasmus is a surprisingly solid option. He’s the namesake for European study abroad university programs, and it was while traveling together during our junior college semester abroad that my husband and I got together. He studied in Barcelona, I was in Siena, and we spent our spring break touring Italy. We’d been good acquaintances when we made our travel plans, but were a couple by day three of our trip—which ended with a visit to a Tuscan cloister overgrown with white clovers.
My boyfriend took me back to that exact spot six years later, on a Vespa, and gifted me the perfectly imperfect ring. Erasmus has always been a patron saint of our story, it just took me a while to see it.
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