Thursday, December 23, 2010

A blessed Christmas

I haven't been posting much this year, but I can't let Christmas go by without a Christmas card. Especially since I've discovered the painter Gerard David (1460?-1523), who created a number of wonderful pictures that just happen to have paternosters or rosaries in them.

Here is yet another picture of the Virgin Mary, the Infant Jesus and a string of paternoster or rosary beads.


In this case, we can't tell as much about the beads as I would like because the only photo of this I could find online is a small one from the Museo Castagnino in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where the painting resides. The Museo Castagnino is a city museum named for local painter Juan Carlos Castagnino, housed in a delightfully turreted Art Nouveau mansion in what looks like the middle of downtown.


Here, as often elsewhere, the Virgin is dressed in a blue gown and red mantle. Most of what we see is the red mantle, which might explain why the beads shown are not painted in red, the color most often seen in such portraits of the Virgin with beads.

I can't tell from the painting whether we are looking at a long loop of beads with a tassel at the bottom, or whether this is a straight string with two tassels that just happen to be lying right next to each other. Either is interesting, but I would be happy if it was the latter, since it would support my theory that a long straight string is a possible, though not common, type of paternoster for women (assuming that the beads here are supposed to belong to the Virgin, not the Infant).

I can count approximately 32 beads in what we can see here, and the space hidden behind the Infant's hand and leg (and darling little toes) has room for about another 20 or so. I would guess this is intended to represent a string of 50 Aves and five Pater beads, one of which is visible just above the tassel(s) at the bottom.

The Ave beads seem to be a sort of gold color, but what I can see of the highlights and interior details (which is not much) suggest that they may be transparent, perhaps representing amber. I've seen another painting of the Virgin and Child with amber-like beads in the Isenheim altarpiece.

The Pater beads occur after every 10th Ave, as expected. They are more or less light-gray smudges in this image if you look at it up close, but I would guess that they might be intended as silver.

The Virgin and Child with beads seems to be a classic theme, and I always find it delightful, however anachronistic it is. It's an image -- like the images of the Virgin "in humility" that show her sitting on the ground -- that encouraged people, in the time when it was painted, to think of Mary and the Infant as human, warm and accessible, rather than majestic and distant. And Christmas is a celebration of exactly that: of a Christ as human as we are.

May peace be on all of us, and on this flawed but still beautiful world. Merry Christmas.

Previous Christmas posts:
Christmas 2005
Christmas 2006
Christmas 2007
Christmas 2008
Christmas 2009


Sunday, August 08, 2010

Zooming at the Prado

This article is a love letter to the Prado.

More and more museums are putting large parts of their collections online. This is especially helpful for the things I research, because there are so few surviving rosaries from before 1700 or so that most museums have only one or two examples, if any. The other major source of information museums have on historical rosary beads is period drawings and paintings, so I'm very grateful to be able to see more of what they've got.

I am especially pleased when the museum has spent the additional money to have their online collection well indexed. Indexing is an often invisible feature that is extremely helpful to scholars. Nothing is more frustrating than to sit in front of a museum's Search page trying one term after another -- the artist's name, his nicknames in various languages, the name of the person in the portrait -- in search of a painting that you KNOW the museum must have. I've mentioned the importance of good indexing before when I wrote about the photo archives at REALonline -- which are pretty well indexed -- and at, which are definitely NOT.

When I discover a new online collection, the first thing I do is a search on "rosary," and while that probably doesn't retrieve everything I would want to see, it's especially gratifying when it turns up things I hadn't seen and was not expecting. A couple of references in the background reading I was doing about La Divina Pastora sent me to the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, and especially to the online photo gallery.

The last time I looked at the Prado site, there were very few paintings online, and the views were small. I can't see much in a 300-pixel-wide image. Rosary beads by their nature tend to be small compared to the people in the painting, and at that size, even if someone is holding beads, I can barely see that they exist. I often can't even count how many beads are showing, and it's next to impossible to see how the painter or artist has depicted the beads -- shape, highlights, surface decoration, how they are strung and other details.

Now the Prado has Zoom. For about 1,000 items in their collection, you can now not only see a good image of the entire painting, you can zoom in on details. In portraits especially, I can often zoom in close enough to practically count the person's eyelashes. More relevant to this discussion, I can see every brush stroke that went into the depiction of beads that are being worn or held by someone in the painting.

Federico Gonzaga, © Museo del Prado

For instance, there are two portraits that I've mentioned elsewhere -- that of Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, shown above, and which I referred to here (he's wearing a rosary around his neck) and the image of Philip II holding a rosary (discussed here and shown below).

Philip II of Spain, © Museo del Prado

Not only can I zoom in on the beads in both these portraits, the overall images of these paintings are much better than the reproductions I'd seen previously. Both are rather dark paintings, and reproductions of them tend to turn both the clothing and the backgrounds black. The museum's online images have much better contrast: the backgrounds appear as subtly shaded browns and grays, and you can see that Mr. Gonzaga's doublet is actually a very nice shade of dark blue. (Philip, of course, is still wearing black, as he nearly always does.)

Here's how it works. When you go to a painting's main page in the Prado online gallery, you see a small image, a list of relevant facts about it (not always complete), and a few paragraphs of discussion. There's usually a bit of discussion about the subject of the painting, some basic information about the painter, and a short outline of the history of this particular painting. At present, most of the pages I've seen have the painting's title, reference number, artist's name, date, and measurements, and a note whether it's currently on display. Missing in some cases are information in the data fields for technique and support (f.ex. oils on canvas), school of artists and the painting's theme. I'm glad they didn't wait to post these images until all that was filled in, though, as it's usually information available elsewhere.

Screenshot, © Museo del Prado

Below each painting are two icons. Clicking on either one takes you to a larger image with the same icons. The magnifying glass icon on the right is for "Zoom 2."

Zoom 2 icon on Museo del Prado website, © Museo del Prado

If you click on this icon, it takes you to a screen with a scale at the bottom: grab the little dark button on the scale and slide it to the right to zoom in on details. Hovering over the painting turns the cursor to a pointing finger, which you can use to move the painting up, down and sideways to center the detail you're looking for. Click on your browser's Back button to get out of this zoom mode.

Zoom 2 Magnifier on Museo del Prado website, © Museo del Prado

The rectangular icon below the painting on the left is for "Zoom 1." If you click on this icon, then click on the painting itself, you get a new window with an "alta resolucion" (high resolution) image of the entire painting. I find this absolutely amazing, because these images are very large, 1 megabyte or more, equivalent to the highest resolution you can see in Zoom 2. These images are easily downloaded for personal research purposes. (It's important to read the legal information linked from the bottom of the page to see what you can and cannot do with these images.)

Zoom 1 icon on Museo del Prado website, © Museo del Prado

No system is perfect, and I did find that for some paintings the medium setting is about as far as you can go in magnifying a painting to see details well. Beyond that you run across the limitations of the original photo that was taken of the painting, as with this detail, where you can easily see the "noise" generated by compressing a large image to fit into a Web-compatible format.

Maximum magnification, Philip II of Spain, © Museo del Prado

So what can I see about these rosary beads that I couldn't see before?

Federico Gonzaga's beads were very difficult to see against the dark background and his dark doublet. Now I can see them clearly enough to count them, to make some educated guesses about the materials they are made of, and to see the arrangement of beads and cross in the center front.

I think the Ave beads here are probably supposed to be jet: they are round, black, have a highlight indicating they are smooth and polished, but don't look at all transparent. They are arranged in nice groups of ten. Judging by how many we can see and how many are probably concealed behind Mr. Gonzaga's head, there are probably five decades. Comparing them with the width of his fingers, they look to be about 10 to 12mm in diameter.

The Pater beads are probably gold (most likely gilded silver), round, and only a little larger than the Ave beads -- which is interesting: Paters are often bigger than this, relative to the Aves. But the difference in material would no doubt be enough that you could easily tell them from the Aves by feel, especially since jet is warm to the touch and metal is not. Not much detail is visible; looking at the shape and placement of the highlights, I'd guess they are probably hollow with a horizontal seam and may be fluted.

Detail, Federico Gonzaga, © Museo del Prado

Also interesting is the arrangement of beads at center front where the loop joins. Unusually for 1529, there are three extra beads below the joining of the loop, followed by another gold Pater bead, and suspended from the end of this short chain of beads is something that appears to be a cross. Not a lot of detail is visible, but it looks like a plain, dark colored Latin cross, possibly jet, about the length of two Ave beads. Above the short chain you can see two Pater beads side by side, one belonging to the decade of Ave beads on each side. In 19th and 20th century rosaries both of these Paters are generally replaced by a flat medal.

Philip II's beads are more nondescript, but we can get a much better view of their size and color. I would guess these are supposed to be gold: they're the right color, although the highlights make them look somewhat dull-surfaced rather than shiny as I'd expect. They are also a little browner in color than the Golden Fleece Philip is wearing around his neck, so they might in fact be something other than gold, though I can't think of anything else quite that color. They aren't transparent enough or yellow-orange enough to be amber. These are bigger than Mr. Gonzaga's beads, perhaps in the 16mm to 18mm range. All we see in this case is plain round beads with no visible Paters or ornaments, and we can't see enough of the string to tell how they are put together.

Detail, Philip II of Spain, © Museo del Prado

I'm very thankful to the Prado, the National Gallery in London, and other museums that now have excellent Zoom features. Their generosity in sharing these images is extremely helpful for anyone trying to do research who is not able to go see everything in person -- much as I'd like to!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Rosary or not: gauds and groups

part 4 of a series

As I mentioned earlier, the first essential of doing research on rosaries and paternosters is to be able to identify paternoster beads when we see them. Besides the "people clues" — who is wearing or holding the beads and how — some clues come from the beads themselves.

I've been looking at some portraits of women with beads around the neck that I'm pretty sure are decorative necklaces and not rosaries. But then I ran across the painting below. It's called "The Magdalen Weeping," and was painted about 1525 in the Workshop of the "Master of the Magdalen Legend." It's now in the National Gallery, London.

Magdalen Weeping, by the Master of the Magdalen Legend. © National Gallery, London

(I must digress here to praise the National Gallery for their new website, with its quite remarkable zoom viewer. A few years ago all they had on the site was one small image of each painting. The zoom viewer is a major improvement, and a boon to anyone who needs to see small details without having to cross a large ocean.)

Here's a closeup. As always, click on the picture for a larger view:

Magdalen Weeping, by the Master of the Magdalen Legend. © National Gallery, London

A very good clue that something is a rosary is the presence of gauds (marker beads) at regular intervals on a single string of beads, with smaller beads between. The painter may or may not reproduce exactly how many beads are in each interval, but my sense is that the presence of larger, contrasting colored beads like this is probably intended as a signal that this element of the painting represents a rosary. So far, I have not seen anything that couldn't be a rosary that has this feature.

An additional clue in Saint Mary Magdalen's necklace is that it has a cross hanging from it. This by itself isn't definitive: medieval necklaces can also have crosses. And if you've been reading this blog for awhile, you will have seen that medieval and Renaissance rosaries didn't always have crosses, by any means: they could end with a medal, a tassel, or just be a continuous loop with no defined end point. But coupled with the gauds, this makes me even more inclined to think that this is a rosary.

In many paintings we can see enough of the beads to tell that they are definitely in groups of ten. While there were probably other devotional practices that used beads in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the "decade" style of rosary devotion was overwhelmingly the most popular and easily recognized. This is an additional factor reinforcing the message that this is intended to signify a rosary, and perhaps a clue that the artist was attempting to paint literally what he saw.

Interestingly, the bead numbers are less than clear in the Magdalen painting. If you look closely at the detail, the beads toward the back of her neck become rather vague. There might be another clear gaud (these are probably intended to be rock crystal) on the lower of the two strands after the tenth bead (counting backward from the gaud close to the cross) but the painting is rather muddled in this area.

I've also seen a number of paintings where the beads are in groups of approximately ten — nine or eleven are fairly common, and sometimes eight or twelve. If several groups are visible, they will very often have different numbers. This leads me to think that the artist is being less than perfectly literal, but that a rosary is probably still the intended meaning.

It becomes more problematic when the beads are in regular groups of less than ten. My working hypothesis is that if there are gauds at regular intervals, a rosary is probably the intended meaning. But there are cases where I'm not sure what to think. For instance, there is this: a detail from a portrait of about 1585 of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia by the workshop of Alonso de Sánchez Coello. The Infanta is pictured with her dwarf, Magdalena Ruiz, who is wearing beads around her neck. (This portrait is in the Museo del Prado, Madrid — which has another very nice zoom viewer on their website.)

Magdalena Ruiz, detail from a portrait of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia by the workshop of Alonso Sanchez Coello, ca. 1585. © Museo del Prado

The beads are in regular groupings, but the groups are only three beads. There is a cross hanging from the beads. Rosary or not? I've debated about this one. I'm inclined to think it is: the regular groups with gauds and the cross strongly suggest it — especially since the cross is not hanging neatly in the bottom center as I think it would if this was a decorative necklace with a cross pendant. This has more the air of a familiar string of beads flung casually around Magdalena's neck because she has her hands full (with a couple of playful monkeys). The cross also looks like a type common to rosaries: compare the sketches in the Book of Guaman Poma.

My working hypothesis is that groups of "known" numbers are a clue that something is a rosary, but other groupings — depending on what other clues are present — are not necessarily a signal that this is not a rosary. No doubt this is my bias showing. I study rosaries, so I may be inclined to see them everywhere. But I would rather think that my experience with the styles and appearance of medieval and Renaissance rosaries may be leading me to point out rosaries in paintings where their significance has previously been missed.

Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Rosary or not?
Part 2: From a Spanish galleon
Par 3: Rosary or not: the people factor


Monday, July 26, 2010



In the last article, I showed a lot of pictures of a relatively common type of wall rosary that is made of some sort of ivory-colored material. Until recently I hadn't ever seen one of these in person, and on eBay they are described in wildly varying terminology, so I deduced that most of the people putting these up for sale have no idea what they're made of either.

A frequent guess is bone or ivory. But bone and ivory both have a "grain" of faint vertical stripes -- it's clearer in bone than in ivory. This doesn't, even when a fairly large smooth surface is exposed.


When you actually have it in your hand, this material is also harder and much heavier than bone. A sharp knife doesn't scratch it. On the Mohs scale of mineral hardness (where talc is 1 and a diamond is 10), bone or ivory has a hardness of about 3 to 5, while a steel knife is about 6, so the fact that a knife won't scratch it demonstrates that this material isn't likely to be bone or ivory.

Also, if this material were bone, that would be detectable by a simple burn test. (I bought a broken rosary of this type for tests, so I wouldn't feel bad about ruining a bead or two.) When held to a flame, bone will scorch, but it usually doesn't show a flame -- or if it does, when you remove it from the heat source the flame goes out by itself. The smell of burning bone is also quite distinctive: it's the smell of a dentist's office where someone has been drilling teeth. Bone scorches under the surface as well as on it -- if you rub off the black part, it's brown underneath.

This rosary material, on the other hand, not only shows a flame, it keeps on burning after you remove it from the heat -- you have to actively extinguish it. The surface turns black, and when it flakes off, the part just underneath the surface is completely unscorched, but soft like taffy. And it gives off a strong acrid smell like burning plastic. (This is a hint.)

This material is indeed at least partly plastic -- or "resin," as plastic is often politely called -- but why is it so heavy? A bit of Internet research reveals that some of these rosaries are labeled as being made from "Oxolyte." This turns out to be the key.

There is, as I discovered, a whole class of modern compounds that consist of stone dust with some sort of plastic (resin) binder. Oxolyte is the trademarked name for a particular compound that includes marble dust. There are other variations, which may use marble, limestone or alabaster dust (rarely quartz) as their stone component. These may be called bonded or cultured marble, sculptstone, thermostone, alabasterite or hydrostone. Most of them are from 75% to as much as 90% stone, which is why they are so heavy and hard. They are used for all sorts of ornamental plaques, statues, picture frames, stepping stones and other ornaments, especially for outdoor use since they are fairly weather-resistant. [1]

These materials can be carved, but their big advantage is that they can be cast in molds, which means a lot of copies of the same thing can be turned out very quickly. Well-made objects that have been cast are often touched up and smoothed, so there may or may not be visible "mold marks" that show where the joints of the mold were. But there's one sign that these objects were indeed cast in molds that is much harder to eradicate -- and the makers often don't bother, especially on surfaces not intended to be seen. Here's the back of the cross of the rosary I bought, and a closeup of the top of one of the beads:



See those round depressions, shaped like half of a small sphere?

Bubbles. From when the casting material didn't completely fill the mold.


[1] Many thanks to R.V. Dietrich, Professor Emeritus, Central Michigan University for this information.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

More off the wall


As I mentioned in Part I, I see a lot of wall rosaries for sale that are made of some sort of ivory-colored (sometimes white, gray or yellowish) material.*

This type of wall rosary is pretty readily recognizable. About three-quarters of the examples of this type I see look like this one:


These rosaries are invariably constructed chain-style with metal links through each bead. The beads are more or less inverted-pyramid shape, with images on four sides. Often the designs on the examples I see are blurry; sometimes they're hard to identify -- I have the feeling they may not have been all that well made in the first place. But when I can tell what they are, the common ones on the rosaries with pyramid-shaped beads are the face of Christ and the face of Mary. Many if not all of them have Mary on two opposite sides and Christ on the other two. On other variations of this type of rosary (discussed below) I've seen similar faces, plus images of visions of Mary (standing on something with kneeling children in front), of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of St. Anthony, and of (I think) Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The designs are "antiqued" with brown or black pigment to bring out the detail.


I will say again that there are a whole lot of these out there. These rosaries are still being made and sold new, either imported by Catholic gift shops or directly from Italian sources like ( gets you there too). And at any given moment there are likely to be two or three of these rosaries for sale on eBay. But just as with other wall rosaries, people who run into one of these have almost always never seen one before and have no idea what they are.

Since these are assembled from parts, it's not surprising to see some mixing and matching with different styles of central medallions and crucifixes. The most common type of crucifix is this one:


(See the engraved asterisks all over the background of this? If you're old enough, you may remember this motif as a very popular one in early 1960s "modern" decor.)

Other styles I've also seen:

alt-cross  twig-cross

The commonest center element is this one, although I've seen a number of different plaques and figures:


But I won't bore you with every possible variation.

I've seen just a few photos of another version, with beads that are flattened on two sides. This example is a rosary specifically in memory of Pope John XXIII. Here's the centerpiece:


It's not a very good photo. I have an even less good image of the faces of these beads -- which have what is clearly John XXIII's face on the flat sides, as you can tell by comparing them to the center medallion, although the beads in the photo are very worn. The beads also have designs molded onto their edges, which are hard to see and identify.



I suspect, though I don't know for sure, that rosaries of this type may also have been made to commemorate Pope Pius XII -- I have seen one privately owned example that seems to have a different face on it than the John XXIII one, but is otherwise extremely similar. The face on that one is a close match for the profiles I've seen of Pius XII (pope 1939-1958), which would make sense, since these rosaries seem to have been most popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I'm actually re-considering my previous idea that wall rosaries were seldom used for prayer, because the images on these seem so often to be worn looking. Either they were used and handled a lot, or perhaps the material is not very durable. This also makes me think that perhaps some of these rosaries were displayed draped tastefully over tables or other furniture where they were touched more frequently, rather than hung on walls. If anyone has better photos of beads like this, or more information, I'd love to hear about it.

*(I was going to be all mean and make you wait for my conclusion about what these are -- and in the next article I'll tell you about the common wrong guesses. But for now, I will offer the key words: alabasterite or oxolyte. Full story next time.)


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wood wall rosaries

wall rosaries, part II

Probably the most common material for modern wall rosaries is wood. It's quite a practical choice, since it's light in weight, so it's easy to make a rosary with big impressive-looking beads that doesn't require wall anchors or other heavy hardware if you actually want to hang it on a wall.

As I mentioned in the first of this series, most wall rosaries seem to be configured like the standard modern rosary: five decades with marker beads, plus a short string of a marker, three smaller beads and another marker above the cross at the end. But there are quite a number of different styles of beads.

First, I did find a couple of photos that show ways in which such a "wall rosary" can be hung. Some of them actually come with a wooden hanger, like this one:


This other picture from a recent eBay auction amuses me, because it illustrates the rather makeshift way I think some wall rosaries may be displayed. On the other hand, perhaps it was just arranged this way to be at convenient photo height.


The simplest type of wall rosary has plain round beads. These unvarnished beads are particularly nice ones.


Plain round beads may also be varnished. The lighter colored ones here are olive wood from the Holy Land. This particular style has beads that aren't as big as the others pictured; they're only about half an inch in diameter. It seems to be much easier to get olive wood beads from the Holy Land now than it was a few years ago when I was looking for them: admittedly it's hard to run any business during a state of active war.


I also see a lot of round beads that are cut lengthwise to the wood grain and finished to bring out the striped appearance of the grain.


There's a particular type of wood-bead wall rosary that seems to be especially popular in South America: it has a distinctively shaped cross. The wood here looks to me rather like palm wood. (As always, click on the photos to get a larger view.)


I used to see more wooden wall rosaries like this next one, whose beads appear to be cut from tree branches. These are out of fashion now and harder to find -- the usual wall-rosary suppliers seem to have discontinued them.


Oval beads are found as well as round ones, as in this next example. These often have particularly long, thin crucifixes on them. They look rather elegant and streamlined.


I've also seen a style that has rectangular, faceted beads, often with a very dark finish.


By far the most common and interesting type of wall rosary is one with decorated beads. The ones below all belong to a common "family" of decoration, where the primary motif is circles. You also see this style of decoration in much smaller rosary beads.



I find these beads interesting because they are all decorated using basically the same method. They are often listed as being "hand carved," but this is only partially true. I am reasonably sure that what's being used to decorate them is a small machine called a "rose engine," which was first invented in Germany in the early 1500s. When Holbein was sent to paint a miniature of Anne of Cleves in 1539, a rose-turned case was made to house the picture.

As one of my correspondents on the Paternosters mailing list explained, "These large round early 20th C wooden beads are formed into spheres on a lathe, and then the overlapping circle-dot (or Eye) designs are done using a revolving cutter, against which the beads are held by hand and cut section by section. The result somewhat resembles the pattern of a rosebud. The circles are often spaced out in a slightly random, hit-and-miss sort of way."

She adds, "This technique of carving and decorating beads I always associate with Christian rosaries, although in fact there are lots of wooden beads and some bone like this that also were made in China in around the 1900’s-1920s, and they weren't associated with crucifixes. It might be interesting to discover whether the stuff made in China was a result of Christian missionary activity or not.  Or whether perhaps the method of carving came to Europe from China."

(By the way, here is a Google Books link to a description of a rose-turning engine from an 1853 edition of the Mechanic's Magazine. I also found an online gallery of some spectacular ornamental turnings, some of which were done with a rose engine. A Google search on "rose turning"+engine will get you a few more examples, although disappointingly few are illustrated.)


Wall rosaries with rose-turned carved wooden beads seem actually to be the single most common type of wooden wall rosary you'll find on eBay and similar sites. I suspect this is because in the late 19th and early 20th century they were mass-produced in vast quantities as souvenirs for just about every notable pilgrimage site connected with the Virgin Mary. In the USA, the most common are those coming from St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, but I've also seen examples from Lourdes, from Buglose in the Pyrenees, and from Laghet on the Côte d'Azur. They seem to be most common in France.


Many of these rosaries have inscriptions on the heart-shaped medallions that draw the ends of the loop together, and the crucifixes of these are often decorated as well. My Paternosters correspondent points out that these designs are not carved, but stamped into the soft surface of the wood. This one is stamped "Souvenir de ND de Laghet" (ND standing for Notre-Dame). The other side says "Coeur Immaculé de Marie protege nous" ("Immaculate Heart of Mary protect us").


Like the other wall rosaries, people who have these for sale on eBay often have no idea what they are. I've bought a few for as little as $5. Since the beads are of a type known from the Renaissance, they make good material for historical reproductions, and I don't mind taking apart a modern rosary for its beads if some of the beads of a rosary like this have been damaged (which is often the case).

I've also seen these rosaries offered for as much as $500 -- generally with no takers at that price. These rosaries are still being produced and are generally in the $40-$50 range new. Unless an example has a particularly interesting history, or unless its age can be documented (which is difficult, as these beads are of a style that doesn't change much) I'm always a bit sad to see them sold for much more than they're worth.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What not to do...

This particular set of pretty pictures is pretty much about what NOT to do when making medieval-style rosaries.

Or at least, it's about some of the gift rosaries I've made that have some feature or other that is certainly not documentable as medieval, in my current state of knowledge.

First, you should ignore the elephant on this next set of beads: it's there because the recipient likes elephants. ;)

Other than the elephant, this is an attempt to construct a set of beads that might be appropriate for a Viking. This isn't quite as lunatic as it sounds: a good many of the Vikings did become Christians. However the peak centuries of what are popularly called "the Vikings" were a couple of hundred years before Christian prayer beads became really popular, so these are probably an anachronism. (And so is the style of the elephant pendant.)

I was inspired to create these by the marker beads, which are some sort of low-grade carnelian with silver caps. The end bead is a larger carved wood bead with more or less matching caps, and the pendant is a "knotwork" cross (though it doesn't look much like actual Norse or Irish knotwork). The small beads are carnelian.


This next set of beads has two features I wouldn't recommend if you're trying to make a set of documentably medieval beads. As I've mentioned before, I don't think I've seen any clear examples of paternoster or rosary beads with Ave beads (the small ones) of two colors alternating. I certainly haven't seen any actual surviving ones that are that way. I wrote a bit more about the doubtful evidence from paintings and woodcuts in my post on the Cabbage-Noster.

The other feature I don't recommend here is the faceted marker beads. While the carving and faceting of beads by hand was certainly possible in the Middle Ages, it was expensive, and not something that was normally done to glass beads: I don't think faceted glass beads became really common until machines were invented to do it rapidly and in quantity. I also don't think this particular style of faceting is at all likely for medieval beads. I bought these black faceted beads years ago and am finally using up the last of them.


Note: if you're wondering about the funny-looking background of some of these, I photograph most beads on my scanner, using a piece of synthetic white "fur" as the background. I'm in too much of a hurry at the moment to do the meticulous retouching to eliminate the shadows of the "fur.")

My third example today is of something that I actually think is plausible, though I can't prove it. This rosary was made for someone who wanted something in the style of "Henry VIII before the break with Rome." The flat, rose-shaped brass beads were something I ran across in a bead catalog, and I quite like them. The rose symbolism is quite appropriate for that period in English history -- a heraldic badge used by Henry VIII and his first wife Catharine of Aragon was a round symbol made from half a rose (for Henry) and half a pomegranate (for Catherine). We know that marker beads for rosaries were made in all sorts of shapes, some of which may also have heraldic significance, and we can be fairly sure that some marker beads were flat rather than round, so I was quite pleased to find these. Of course aristocratic beads like these would more likely have had actual gold markers; I don't know to what extent gold jewelry was imitated in brass in the Renaissance.


I'm much more dubious about the leaves I added to the same rose-shaped marker beads in the next rosary. We do know that at times the gauds (marker beads) were set off from the other beads by what might be called "spacers," smaller beads that are mostly decorative and don't "count" as part of the beads used for prayer. (Germans call them "Zwischenperlen," which I still think is a lovely word.) I was given these little leaf beads (also brass) as a gift, and my modern taste says they set off the rose beads nicely. But I can't document anything like this. All the Zwischenperlen I have seen in historical beads are little round, oval or flattened oval beads.


Like King René of Anjou (1409-1480) I make rosaries as a hobby. Unlike René, however, I try to make mine in the style of a historical period quite different from my own. ;) It's an interesting exercise, but it almost always means making some compromises with history, since (for one thing) for the most part we don't have exactly the same materials people in the Middle Ages had to work with. The round glass beads I use so often, for instance, are made by pressing -- a 19th century invention -- rather than being individually hand-wound on a mandrel. And we are not medieval people ourselves, so what seemed appropriate or attractive to them may or may not seem that way to us -- and vice versa.

These particular sets of beads show stronger tendencies than (I hope) most of what I make to "bend" the unwritten rules of medieval style in order to produce something I thought the recipients of the gifts would like. They're still fun, and making medieval rosaries as gifts is an incentive to research and debate the issues that come up in making them.