44. Seal of Aster [or Asterias]
Bibliography: Deloche, 1900,† Frey, 1936, No. 672; Blumenkranz, 1965–66, No. 2, 24 (3); Bedos, 1980b, No. 2, 24 (3).
M. Deloche in 1900 described a massive gold ring weighing twenty-six grams discovered in the course of pipeline excavations in a Bordeaux street. With it at the same site were several pieces of Roman money. The ring was engraved on both sides where it met the bezel with seven-branched menorahs on tripods. Cut round into the exposed sides of the bezel, which stuck up above the body of the ring some 6 mm., was another small menorah followed by the letters ASTER. The letters were separated by a colonnade, so that each letter was in its own tiny arched vault. The table of the bezel was engraved with a monogram of the same name. This incised monogram was doubtless used by the owner for a signet.
Considerable controversy ensued upon the discovery of this precious piece of jewelry. Certain scholars maintained that the complicated monogram indicated the name should be Asterius, and claimed that the ring probably belonged to a Merovingian bishop of Périgueux by that name, living in the sixth or seventh century, who used the design of the Jewish menorah as an ecclesiastical symbol of office or as a biblical metaphor. Other scholars affirmed that the monogram could be interpreted either way but pointed out that there was sufficient room round the side band of the bezel to engrave the name Asterius in full—and indeed the menorah preceding the name was probably a filler for the extra space—and thus there was no reason to presume another name was intended when the plain evidence indicated Aster.
Jean-Baptiste Frey lists this as a signet ring of Asterius and agrees that the style is Merovingian. He rejects a Christian provenance, however, saying that “the presence of the seven-branched candelabrum evidently indicates a Jewish origin” (1936, p. 484). This writer is not in accord with Father Frey’s view, based solely on the evidence of the candelabrum. Putting aside the Talmudic injunction against showing the temple menorah (a prohibition which we know was violated repeatedly), the seven-branched candelabrum can be considered at least as much a Christian as a Jewish symbol in medieval Europe. As the illustration here from Essen indicates, there are churches and cathedrals—Essen, Braunschweig, Paderborn, and Lübeck in Germany, Reims in France, Klosterneuburg in Austria, and even in Rome itself—in which great and imposing seven-branched candelabra stand as religious symbols, some of them from the eleventh or twelfth century, to show the faithful, in rather blatant fashion, that the Christian religion is the true heir and successor to the vanquished and erroneous Jewish faith.
Mosaic floor inscription from synagogue at Hammam Lif, outside Tunis. National Museum of Bardo, Tunisia.
The matter, however, cannot be put to rest so easily. Astruc was a common name among Jews in southern France and eastern Spain; one of its derivations, it is claimed, is the Latin aster, “star.” The name Asterius is seen in the Jewish catacombs of Rome. Claudia Aster is a Jewish name recorded at Jerusalem. A martyr of Cologne in 1096 had the name Astorio, probably a form of Asterius. On the mosaic floor of a synagogue from around the sixth century at Hammam Lif, outside Tunis, the inscription, illustrated here, reads: “Aesterius son of the archisynagogus Rusticus [and his wife] Margarita [daughter] of Riddeus paved this part with mosaic” (Goodenough, 1954, No. 895). Whether Aster or Asterius, the name on our seal could be Jewish. Deloche also concluded that this ring belonged to a Jewish woman, in his case, because of the combination of the name and the menorah symbol.