There is a lot of symbolism in antique jewellery and over the last few years, I have written about many of the symbols used, such as stars and moons, locks, horseshoes, buckles, and so on. But there are many more symbols, so I will discuss some of them over the next few weeks. I am going to start with a little collection of charms that I purchased earlier this year. You can see a photo of them at the top of the post – an anchor, a heart and a cross. These three symbols are frequently grouped together and represent ‘faith, hope and charity (or love)’. The cross represents faith, the anchor hope and the heart charity or love. In the Christian religion, they are known as theological virtues which can assist believers in living a Christian life. St Paul was the first Christian writer to refer to the three virtues, reminding his readers ‘to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope’ (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Paul’s best known reference was in 1 Corinthians 13 when he said: ‘And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.’
I wondered why an anchor was used to represent hope but found that the link had also been made in the New Testament book of Hebrews in which the author urged readers to take hold of the hope before them and to ‘have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure’ (Hebrews 6:18. 19). The symbol of an anchor was found on inscriptions in Roman catacombs in the 2nd century AD and was suggested as being suitable for signet rings.
So the anchor symbol represented hope from at the least the 2nd century. (Note that the anchor which is ‘fouled’, that is, it has rope wound around it so that would be difficult to use properly involves more symbolism which I may discuss in a later post.)
The cross, however, was not generally associated with the Christian faith until at least the 4th century AD. I will talk more about jewellery crosses in my next post.
When were the three symbols first used together? The three virtues were frequently depicted in 17th century tapestries, paintings and sculptures but love or charity was usually depicted as a woman with small children around her. We know, too, that the heart symbol (♡) was not used in paintings and tapestries until the very late 14th century. There is a beautiful tapestry in the Louvre Museum called the ‘Le Don du Coeur’ (The Gift of the Heart) which shows a man giving a tiny red heart to a seated lady. It was created around 1410. There are a few heart shaped rings in museums dating from 14th century, one with an inscription ‘ The heart brings love to you’. The British Museum has some gold heart-shaped dangle earrings from the 15th century.
The 16th and 17th centuries saw a revived interest in the medieval concept of courtly love. Much of the medieval poetry conjured up images of broken hearts and stolen hearts. This imagery can start to be seen in jewellery. From the 1600s, fede gimmel rings became popular. They have two hands clasped together and open up to reveal one or two hearts. In the 17th century, the claddagh ring from Ireland has a heart held in two hands, often with a crown on top of the heart, meaning ‘ruler of my heart’. In France, ‘alliance’ ring set with two hearts became popular as wedding rings in the 18th century.
There is jewellery dating from the Georgian period which has the three symbols so it appears likely that the cross, heart and anchor were first used as symbols for the three virtues from the 18th century onwards and by the second half of the 19th century, the symbols appeared to have become recognized and common symbols.