Jeweler pleads for break from tradition to save pope's ring

'For its symbolic value, not because I made it'

Jeweler pleads for break from tradition to save pope's ring

Rome, February 19 - In a case of Vatican tradition versus art, a Roman goldsmith is pleading that the ring he designed for Pope Benedict XVI be spared ritual destruction. Claudio Franchi designed and created for Benedict the historic Ring of the Fisherman - the symbol pope's have worn for almost 1,000 years. And with the retirement of Benedict on February 28, Vatican tradition demands that this pope's ring be destroyed and a new one forged for the next pontiff. That strikes a deep blow to the heart of Franchi, an art historian who is now pleading for a break from the destructive ritual of the ring. "It has a strong symbolic value, and for this reason I hope it does not get destroyed," said Franchi. Known also as the Piscatory Ring, the golden symbol of papal power traditionally shows St. Peter fishing - a classic reference to the Biblical tradition that Christ's apostles were his "fishers of men". Vatican tradition holds that the Fisherman's Ring of an outgoing pope must be smashed, originally for very practical reasons: to prevent its fraudulent use after a pope died. Since as early as 1265, the ring had served as an official seal on documents signed by the pope - until 1842, when it was replaced by a stamp. The ring remained a strong symbol of papal supremacy, with visitors of every rank greeting the pope by kneeling and kissing his ring. In recent times, most popes chose to wear the symbolic ring rarely, if at all. Instead, most chose a more simple daily-wear band or, in the case of Pope John Paul II, a wide gold crucifix. However Benedict, who is 85, decided to reintroduce the papal ring as an object for daily use when he became Pope in 2005. Franchi sees that as a gesture from a conservative pope who wished to "reintroduce something of value from the past". And because it has served Benedict as a symbolic connection with papal history, rather than in any official capacity as a formal seal, it should be treated as an object of art, argues Franchi. "That's why it should be saved in a museum, for its symbolic value, not because I made it," he added. Franchi said he devoted two weeks' of work to research and designing the ring for Benedict. Two models were presented for the pope's selection, "and he chose the most classic". The ring, engraved with Benedict's name and containing about 1.23 ounces of gold, shows St. Peter with his hand cupped to mimic the shape of the Bernini-designed colonnade that enfolds St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. There is still hope for the ring. According to Vatican Spokesman Federico Lombardi, the symbol of the papacy will likely be "terminated" after Benedict formally leaves office. But he hinted that there may yet be a little room for reconsideration. "Objects strictly tied to the ministry of St. Peter must be destroyed," explained Lombardi. But, he added, experts within the Holy See are still considering how precisely the rules around the papal ring are to be interpreted. Franchi has seized on that possibility of reprieve. "I believe the College of Cardinals is figuring out how not to destroy it," said the goldsmith. Despite his conservative tendencies, Benedict broke - very publicly - with tradition by announcing last week that he did not have the mental and physical strength to continue in a role that is traditionally held for life. The last time a pope quit voluntarily was more than 700 years ago, in 1294, when Celestine V vacated the post after a mere five months. The latest papal conclave of cardinals to elect a new pope is expected to start by the middle of March and Benedict will retire to a monastery now being refurbished inside the Vatican.

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