Monday, April 18, 2005

Balthasar's acorns

I like to tell this story because it proves I can be as wrong as anyone.

In looking for pictures of how people actually wore their rosaries, I was fascinated by this picture (from the Marburg photo archive). This nice young man is Balthasar Eicheister in 1528, and he has just become betrothed, as you can tell because he's holding a carnation in his hand. He is lucky enough to have his portrait (and presumably his lady's as well) painted for the occasion by Bartholomeus Bruyn the Elder, a painter from the region of Cologne, Germany, who painted lots of portraits of people with rosaries.


Aha, I said to myself: not only is this an interesting picture of someone wearing a rosary around his wrist, it's a nice example of a rosary made from tubular beads, probably wooden ones by their color. A few of them seem to be a little larger and lighter in color, so they might be a different material. And since I had on hand some beads of the right shapes, and an especially nice carved bone bead that I wanted to use for something, I made this:

Balthasar beads

I've found, by the way, that I can wear this rosary wrapped around my wrist, Balthasar-fashion, but that it's too slippery to stay that way by itself. If I want it to hang in several loose loops rather than one long dangly loop and the rest snug, I have to fasten the strands together with a brooch -- and it still gets in my way rather.

As I've mentioned before, the Marburg photo archive is not very well indexed, so it was only when I searched out all of Bartholomeus Bruyn's portraits that I noticed this:

It's a closeup of the same painting, and it shows the beads much more clearly. And -- surprise! -- they aren't cylinders at all, they are carved in the form of acorns!

Balthasar closeup

I have yet to find out the symbolism of using beads shaped like acorns in a rosary. Perhaps it's just a fashionable bead shape -- there's a girdle of acorns carved in rock crystal from the tomb in Lauingen, Bavaria, of the Countess Palatine Dorothea Sabina (known to costumers because the pattern for her gown is in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion c.1560-1620).

Dorotheas acorns

The description of this girdle in Princely Magnificence: Court Jewels of the Renaissance, 1500-1630 (Debrett's Peerage Ltd., 1980) notes that there were "Acorns of silver on what is probably a rosary of the early 16th century" in a 1904 exhibition of historical jewelry in Strassburg.

Last but not least, I'm kicking myself for another missed opportunity on the German eBay: a rosary of wooden acorns came up for auction a couple of years ago, and not only did I not bid on it, I didn't save the photo, either :(

So what is it with acorns?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what's with acorns? There's the saying, "Mighty oaks from little acorns grow". This is very similar to the Bible parable of the mustard seed. Perhaps the acorns represent faith - and trust that the prayers will bear great things.

3:02 PM  
Anonymous Nicole Schwindt said...

Maybe it's an allusion to the name:
acorns in German is "Eichel", the name of the wearer is EICHeister (Eiche = oak).
Nicole Schwindt

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The symbolism of the acorn is linked with pre-Christian myth, as is the Christmas tree, another import from Germany.

The oak was the representation of general positive traits, light, strength, the sun and summer. Acorns were seen as the seeds of these qualities, and became a symbol for instilling these qualities in people.

Just a thought.

8:41 PM  

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