I recently came across this image while browsing through the website for an exhibition entitled “Lost at Sea: the Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550-1750” that is currently being held at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
This artifact is one of those things that makes me love history — an object infused with meaning, but also with mystery, since we can know so little about the events that led to its creation. All we can tell from the available evidence is that this is a memorial keepsake ring apparently made to commemorate a loved one who lost his life at sea. According to the Folger Library’s website,
The short verse or “poesy” inscribed inside the band reads, “The cruel seas, remember, took him in November.” The lines focus on the dead man’s past; the skeletal image and initials “R.C.” represent the missing corpse’s present; and the gold gestures toward a heavenly future.
Such keepsakes are among my favorite artifacts from the early modern period — they seem to encapsulate the preoccupations and personal thoughts of individual people better than anything else. Another one of my favorites is this surreal and moving c. 1600 miniature of an unidentified nobleman wreathed in flames of hellfire, thought to be from the workshop of Isaac Oliver: