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A new ring is cast in gold for each Pope. Around the relief image is the reigning Pope's Latin name in raised lettering. During the ceremony of a Papal Coronation or Papal Inauguration, the Dean of the College of Cardinals slips the ring on the third finger of the new Pope's right hand. Upon a papal death, the ring is ceremonially crushed in the presence of other cardinals by the Camerlengo, in order to prevent the sealing of backdated, forged documents during the interregnum, or sede vacante.
A letter written by Pope Clement IV to his nephew Peter Grossi in 1265 includes the earliest known mention of the Ring of the Fisherman, used for sealing all private correspondence by pressing the ring into red sealing wax melted onto a folded piece of paper or envelope. Public documents, by contrast, were sealed by stamping a different papal seal onto lead which was attached to the document. Such documents were historically called papal bulls, named after the stamped bulla of lead. Use of the Fisherman's Ring changed during the 15th century when it was used to seal official documents called papal briefs. That practice ended in 1842, when the wax with its guard of silk and the impression of the ring was replaced by a stamp which affixed the same device in red ink.
Through the centuries, the Fisherman's Ring did not become known for its practical use but by its feudal symbolism. Borrowing from the traditions developed by medieval monarchs, followers showed respect to the reigning Pope by kneeling at his feet and kissing the Fisherman's Ring. The tradition continues to this day.
- "The Ring of the Fisherman". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/The_Ring_of_the_Fisherman.
- "Bulls and Briefs". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Bulls_and_Briefs.