Friday, February 25, 2005

Computer Age rosaries

Never let it be said that the rosary isn't a living and constantly changing devotion, because it is.

Not only are we seeing new 20-decade rosaries that include Pope John Paul II's new set of "mysteries" for meditation, but there are forms of rosaries of which our forebears could never have dreamed....

The credit-card rosary

This seems to be the modern version of the "pocket" or "soldier's" rosary -- small, sturdy, able to be carried in a pocket for personal use anytime. I haven't yet heard of one of these carried in a shirt pocket stopping a bullet (a story heard many times about pocket Bibles or prayer books) but I'm sure it will be reported sooner or later.

The rosary online

You can now pray the rosary online — or at least, you can pray with an animated diagram in front of you to remind you what to do next. I haven't yet seen one clever enough to recommend, though; so far they all seem to be fairly clunky.

Electronic rosary

However you can get yourself a portable electronic rosary. In case you were wondering (I was), no, neither of these models will read your mind and automatically move to the next prayer. Instead, you have to push a button when you've finished a prayer, and the battery-powered device will illuminate the proper "bead" for you to pray next.

The home page for the rectangular Vista is here and the round gadget can be found here. The round version even comes with a chain so you can wear it around your neck....

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Seeking at Sotheby's

A friend who’s cultivating her picture collection alerted me this week (thanks, Shelley!) to an interesting source of images, the online auction site for Sotheby’s. This has images from both upcoming auctions and some past auctions, though I don’t know how long they stay up. She also notes that the search indexing is rather odd, so searches seem to turn up a lot of irrelevant material as well as what you’re looking for.

First, there are a couple of Big Red Rosary portraits. This portrait of a lady with a rosary is from a follower of our old friend Bartholomeus Bruyn (unfortunately, the color balance on this photo is really horrible, the portrait itself is hopefully much better).

The other one is an example of the by-now-familiar pair of married-couple portraits, and in this case both husband and wife are holding large coral rosaries in different styles. This pair is listed as by a follower of Frans Pourbus the Younger, and were painted in 1625 and 1629 (which is unusually late for this portrait style).

The elderly bearded gentleman is said to be the Vicomte d'Amphernet, at the age of 75, and his wife the Vicomtesse is 64, which might explain the rather old-fashioned portrait style.

I was particularly tickled to see these two because the Vicomtesse's rosary has six decades -- the first instance of this I've noticed among the Big Reds. I have six decades on the big red coral rosary I've made, but I did it mostly for Maximum Ostentation Value , and I'm happy to see it's actually documentable.

In case you’re curious, each page on the auction site also tells you what a piece is predicted to sell for, and if it’s been sold, what the actual price was. This pair of portraits went for 16,800 euros.

Not a portrait this time, but an interesting 16th-century rosary of skulls and a cross all made of jet, possibly from Compostela, Spain. It’s about 7 inches long and strung on a later, silver-gilt thread. The largest bead on the rosary has a skull on one side and the face of Christ on the other. (The separate skull is a different item.)

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Simple rosary instructions

I had a good time last month teaching a class I called "Rosaries, Relics and Rings in the Renaissance" at a symposium in Palo Alto (California) for participants in Renaissance Faires. Both my classes were well attended and those taking the class were generally very enthusiastic.

The only problem (if you can call it that) was that I spent about the first third of the class laying out some (I think) necessary background about what it was like to be a Roman Catholic in Elizabethan England. This meant that we didn't have time at the end of the class to actually sit down and assemble a simple rosary, as I usually have people do when I teach a medieval rosaries class.

I did have kits for sale, and by the way, thank you to everyone who contributed money to help cover the cost of photocopying class handouts (one of which was in color and cost [shudder] $2 for one little piece of paper).

This kit (see What's in a Kit) makes a simple rosary of bone, wood, or glass beads, strung on a silk cord, ending in a cross or other pendant. This is a type of rosary that I think might have been seen just about anywhere in Western Europe, over a wide range of times between about 1400 and 1600.


A couple of people have asked me to post the directions for assembling the kit, so here they are. (First, do read What's in a Kit if you need to refresh your memory.)

Also, for those who were there, a numbered "key" to the items on the color handout is Comment 1 under this entry.

If you weren't at the class, don't have a kit, and aren't interested in the details of bead-stringing at the moment, you're invited to skip this (since it's rather long) and read something more interesting ;).

Besides what's in your kit, you will need scissors, and depending on how you're finishing off your rosary, you may also need a small pair of pliers.

If you consult other bead-stringing sites, you'll discover that the way I use a little "clamshell" finding to secure the knots isn't exactly orthodox. The reason I do it is that I have an inherent distrust of knots, even if they are glued. I prefer to have a mechanical "stop" of some kind — like the little hole in the hinge of the finding — that keeps the knot from wriggling loose even if the glue doesn't hold for the next 50 years. The "clamshell" is also a tidy way of hiding the knots and ends. If you want to use other methods of securing your knots, feel free.


(1) Thread the end of your yard of silk cord through the eye of your twisted wire beading needle. You'll use a single thread (not double) to string your rosary.

(2) Pick up one of your five gauds (the bigger marker beads) and thread it onto your cord. Slide it down to about 8 inches from the far end.

(3) Run your needle through this bead twice more, in the same direction as your original threading, being careful not to pierce the thread anywhere with the needle. (This is temporary and you're going to need to remove the extra threadings later.) This keeps all the beads from sliding off the free end as you thread them.

(4) Thread onto the cord ten (10) of your Ave beads (the smaller ones). Count carefully — you don't want to discover a "decade" of 9 or 11 after you've tied the final knot!

(5) Add another gaud.

(6) String a total of five groups of ten Aves each, with a gaud between each group. You'll end with ten Aves. Leave the needle threaded.

(7) Lay the string down on a flat surface where it won't roll, like a towel. Carefully remove the extra threadings from the first gaud, leaving just one thread running through the bead.

(8) Take your still-threaded needle at the end of your strung beads and thread it through that first gaud, going from the direction with beads to the direction without beads (the free end). You now have a complete loop, ending in a gaud with two parallel threads through it in the same direction and two free ends lying side by side.

(9) Adjust for length. You'll want to leave some slack in the loop -- most of the period rosaries I've seen have anywhere from an inch to as much as two or three inches of empty thread in the loop. This allows you to slide the beads along the thread as you "pray" each one. Adjust your beads so you have the length of bare thread you want between the beads and the end gaud. Take both free ends of the thread and tie them in a knot. (This knot is a place marker — it won't be big enough by itself to keep the end gaud from sliding off, so be careful if you pick the string up.)

Options for finishing

From here, there are several options, depending on how you're constructing your rosary.

(A) The five-bead "tail" you see on modern rosaries came into fashion in the mid to late 16th century, but it wasn't a universal part of all rosaries until at least the 18th century. If you have three extra Ave beads (most strings do have a few extras) and a sixth gaud, you can add this "tail" if you want. Go to the Beads with Tail instructions below.

(B) If you are not adding any more beads, and want to finish off your rosary with a tassel (rather than a cross or other medal), go to the Beads with Tassel instructions below. You'll need about 10 to 20 yards of thread to make a nice tassel -- pearl cotton is nice, silk is even nicer but more expensive. My experience is that store-bought ready-made tassels tend to be made of rayon, which shreds rather quickly.

(C) If you are not adding any more beads, and want to finish your rosary with a cross or medal, continue here.

Finishing with a cross or medal

(10) Thread both of the free ends of thread through the eye of your twisted wire needle. (You may need to widen the eye with a stout pin, first, if it's been squeezed narrower by going through small bead holes.)

(11) If you're going to (as I recommend) use the little "clamshell" finding included in your kit to hold the finishing knot, pick it up, open it up a little, and hold it with the hinge down (the hinge has a hole in it) and the two "cups" up. For a rather silly analogy, think of a swimsuit top worn by a lady who's lying on her stomach sunbathing (grin). Run the threaded needle through the hole in the hinge from top to bottom (the direction is important). Push the clamshell along the threads until it is right up against the knot you tied in Step 9.

First threading illustration

(12) Now run the threaded needle through the eye of your cross or medal.

(13) (This is the slightly tricky part.) Run the threaded needle back through the hole in the hinge of the clamshell finding. Depending on exactly which thread you got in your kit, this may be a tight fit. If the needle won't go through with both threads in it, try doing one at a time. Be careful not to let the needle "split" any of the threads in the process, since this makes it impossible to adjust for length. If that does happen, unthread the needle and pull on the thread to untangle it.

Second threading illustration

(14) Now adjust the length of thread between the clamshell finding and the cross. At least a little of the thread will show -- it has to, to make a loop big enough so the cross can swing freely. Snug the clamshell up against the overhand knot that closes the loop.

(15) When everything's adjusted to your liking, separate the two threads between the overhand knot and the end gaud, creating a loop. You can push the rest of the beads up out of the way (since you thoughtfully left some slack in the loop) so you can see what you're doing. Take your needle off the free ends of the threads and separate those two threads. Pass one thread through the triangular loop and tie the two free ends in a square knot. This puts the square knot right on top of the overhand knot, so the clamshell can cover both.

Third threading illustration

(16) Don't cut the ends yet. Put a drop of glue on the knot and let it dry.

(17) When the glue is dry, carefully trim the ends of the knot short. Last, put another drop of glue on the knot and, before it dries, use the pliers to gently close (not flatten) the clamshell around the knots. Adjust the clamshell so that it's centered on the threads at top and bottom and allow to dry thoroughly.

Beads with Tail

Use these instructions if you're adding the "tail" with extra beads that's common on modern rosaries.

(1) (from Step 9) Adjust the knot you just tied in your loop so that one of the free ends coming from it is longer than the other. The short end only needs to be 3 or 4 inches long, and the other should be as long as possible. The long end is what you'll use to add the extra beads. Re-thread the longer end into your needle.

(2) If you're going to (as I recommend) use the little "clamshell" finding included in your kit to hold the finishing knot, pick it up, open it up a little, and hold it with the hinge down (the hinge has a hole in it) and the two "cups" up. For a rather silly analogy, think of a swimsuit top worn by a lady who's lying on her stomach sunbathing {grin}. Run the threaded needle through the hole in the hinge from top to bottom (the direction is important). Push the clamshell along the thread until it is right up against the knot that closes the loop. (See the illustrations above, except that you'll have only one thread where it shows two.)

(2) String three more Ave beads, then one more gaud.

(3) Now run the threaded needle through the eye of your cross or medal.

(4) Take the needle carefully back through the last gaud, then back through the three Ave beads, and last, up through the clamshell finding. Be careful not to let the needle "split" any of the threads in the process, since this makes it impossible to adjust for length. It's also difficult to undo once it happens.

(5) Pull on the thread so that there is a small loop above the cross (large enough for it to swing freely) and about half an inch of bare thread between the last Ave bead and the clamshell. Push the clamshell down away from the knot that closes the loop. You can push the beads of the loop out of the way as well (since you thoughtfully left some slack in the loop) so you can see what you're doing.

(6) Carefully tie the short free end of thread hanging from the gaud that joins the loop together, and the end the needle is on, in a firm knot right next to the knot that closes the loop. It's important that these two knots be very close together so the clamshell can cover them both. If you want to be sure they stay together, tie your knot, wrap one or both ends around the closing knot and tie again. Don't trim the ends yet.

(7) Follow steps 16 and 17 above.

Beads with a Tassel

First, make or buy your tassel. There are good tassel-making instructions online here and elsewhere. Don't bother to trim or "even up" the bottom of your tassel before using it.

This is probably the easiest way to finish the beads (but also not quite as secure as the others given). You won't need the little clamshell finding for this — you can toss it, or save it for another project.

(1) If the knot you tied in step 9 isn't a secure, permanent knot, make it one. Push the beads up out of your way (since you thoughtfully left some slack in the loop) so you can see what you're doing. Now separate the two threads that lie between the overhand knot and the end gaud, creating a loop.

(2) Your tassel should have two free ends of a binding or hanging string sticking out of the top. Take one of these ends and pass it through the triangular loop in one direction. Now take the other end and pass it through the same loop in the opposite direction. Pull snug and tie the two ends in a small secure knot. This snugs the tassel right up against the knot that closes the loop.

(3) You now have four free ends to get rid of. For each one, do this: thread the end into a large sharp needle, and plunge the needle downward through the top part of the tassel, not too far from the outside of the bunch of threads. Let the needle emerge below the "waistband" of the tassel. Bring the needle out below this line and insert it again above it several times, spaced around the tassel. The last time, plunge the needle back into the middle of the tassel and down, coming out the bottom where all the free ends are.

(4) Trim off the remaining ends when you trim the bottom of the tassel. (Tip: it's easier to trim a wet tassel evenly than a dry one!)


Monday, February 14, 2005

The Rose-Garden Game

For a long time, Eithne Wilkins' The Rose-Garden Game was the only readily available book in English about the history of the beads of the rosary. (Of course there have been many other books about the rosary, but most of them are about the prayers and their benefits, not the actual beads.)

The Rose-Garden Game was actually the book that got me interested in rosaries, years ago — I took it out of the public library when I was in high school, and found it fascinating. When I started researching rosaries seriously, it was one of the first things I bought. As I went looking, I actually had very little trouble finding a used copy on the Internet for a reasonable price.

Unfortunately this book is clearly a product of its times (1969) and it has some problems. The author is fond of the Mystic East, and finds a great deal to say about the metaphoric and psychological implications of roundness, beads, circles, roses, the repetition of prayers and so forth. A lot of the statements she makes are not backed up by any reference to sources. She definitely has her own ideas about the meaning of beads and their history, and I am skeptical of a lot of her conclusions, since they don't seem to me to be backed by any solid historical documentation.

It also shares a fault with many other popular books about the history of artifacts, which is that — as was common before the mid-1980s or so — it assumes without saying so that 19th-century popular culture is an essentially unchanged version of traditions that go back to the Middle Ages or earlier. We now know a lot more about how traditions are transmitted and where they come from, and it's generally agreed now that this was a highly romanticized view, powered by wishful thinking more than by any actual evidence. Nineteenth-century "tradition" can give us useful clues, but we can't assume these apply to any other century without checking them out. Wilkins relies on a lot of 19th-century material, which is certainly interesting, but has to be treated with caution.

That said, she does include direct quotes from some historical sources — for instance, she has more information about Lady Godiva's will than I've seen elsewhere — and she also reproduces quite a few photos, which are all footnoted as to source and include the dimensions of the rosary (yay!!). Some of her photos are of pieces I haven't seen any photos of anywhere else — the very drool-worthy emerald rosary from the Schatzkammer in Munich, for instance, and a couple of paintings that show people using the less common rosaries that use "disk" counters rather than beads.

As virtually the only source in English for many years, it has been relied on by many other authors, including Lois Sherr Dubin in her massive history of beads. But while it's still valuable (especially for its photos), there are now much better sources on the history of the rosary.

For the development of the rosary (as we now know it) in the middle 1400s, and its rapid rise in popularity, I would recommend Anne Winston-Allen's Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages. She does not, alas, discuss the actual beads, but she thoroughly explains the ideas that came together to form the rosary, the people most responsible for its development, and the foundation of the first "rosary brotherhoods" in Germany.

For information about the actual beads, who made them, who bought them or gave them as gifts, how they were arranged and so forth, Ronald Lightbown's Medieval European Jewellery is the book to see. It was put out by the Victoria and Albert Museum and is now very hard to find except in a university library; it's also huge, heavy, out of print and very expensive (multiple hundreds of dollars, if you can find a copy at all). Its chapters are packed full of examples and citations, and the color photographs in the back are utterly gorgeous.

The Rose-Garden Game: A Tradition of Beads and Flowers, by Eithne Wilkins. (1969, Herder & Herder, no ISBN)

Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages, by Anne Winston-Allen (1997, Pennsylvania State University Press, ISBN 0-2710-1631-0)

Medieval European Jewellery, by Ronald Lightbown (1992, Victoria & Albert Museum, ISBN 0-9481-0787-1)


Thursday, February 10, 2005

It's a Guy Thing

Rosaries in the Renaissance were certainly not just for women. There were many Manly Men who had their portraits painted clutching a rosary or paternoster -- preferably with Really Big Beads to demonstrate how wealthy and successful they were.

As with the portraits of women with large coral rosaries, some of these portraits of men are clearly the "other half" of a pair of marriage portraits, while other portraits stand alone.

Besides rosaries, other favorite things for men to hold in formal portraits are a pair of gloves, a book, a skull(!) or a rolled-up piece of paper (though we usually can't see what's on it). Women tend to hold gloves as well, or handkerchiefs, but more often just have their hands neatly folded. (These are ladies of leisure, one presumes.)

Here are a few of the better portraits of Men With Rosaries that I've found, followed by links to several more.

Below is a portrait by Albrecht Dürer of his father (left), (1490), and a portrait of Lodewijk [Ludwig] van Gruuthuse, by the Master of the Princes' Portraits (right):

Below left, an unknown man with a rosary, by Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder (mid-1500s); right, A portrait of a man from the Pilgrum family, by Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder (1528):

Speaking of BIG beads, here's a portrait of a man from the Von Rhein family and a closeup view of his beads:

A portrait of a man from the Chemnitz family, by Ludget tom Ring the Younger (1569), and an anonymous portrait by the Master of the Bartholomew Altar (1492):

This one's rather entertaining: Stefan Praun poses for his portrait (painter & date unknown) dressed up in pilgrim's clothing. There's a large rosary hanging from the hand that's holding his pilgrim's staff.

Some people just don't like having their portraits painted. Perhaps the gentleman below thinks his beads are too small? (This is actually Duke Sigismund of Austria, Count of Tyrol, painted by the Master of the Mornauer Portraits, around 1470.)

See the links below for more portraits:

Otto von Langenfeldt, by a painter signing himself "M S V" (1510)

Man with Rosary, by Ulrich Apt the Elder, Augsburg (1st half of 1500s)

Portrait of a Man, by Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder (1533)

A portrait by the Master of St. Sebastian of Mainz

Another portrait
by Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder (circa 1528)

For more on men with big rosaries, see the entries for Counting to ten and Praying on all cylinders. For big rosaries held by women, see Big, Red, and German and Big Berthas.

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Thursday, February 03, 2005

Bad, bad rosaries

Well, of course there's really no such thing as a "bad" rosary from a spiritual point of view. If it allows you to count your prayers and has the right number of everything, and if it's not so ugly or uncomfortable or heavy that the owner avoids using it, then it's certainly just fine for devotional purposes.

But I discovered a couple of weeks ago that I need to start collecting a few "bad" rosaries.

Let me explain. I taught a very successful rosary class a couple of weekends ago for people who portray various characters (real or ficititious) at Renaissance Faires. One of the sorts of things I wanted to do was to show them what kinds of modern rosaries are, and are not, reasonable approximations of what you'd find in 16th-century England.

Well, I have several examples of *good* rosaries for this purpose. But on the theory of teaching good design by showing people examples of bad design (see the Web Pages that Suck website, for instance), I wanted to show some examples of rosaries that were too modern to be suitable or otherwise "wrong" for a 16th-century person to carry. And I discovered that I didn't have any.

I don't, for instance, have a glow-in-the-dark plastic rosary. In fact, my search criteria for interesting rosaries to look at on eBay specifically exclude any with the words "plastic" or "glow."

I actually don't think I have any rosaries with plastic beads at all, and I should, if only to demonstrate that they never look convincing, even when they're trying to imitate wood or pearls or other plausible substances. They don't look right, even if you don't touch them, and they're not heavy enough to hang right, either. And of course the baby-blue plastic ones are Right Out.

I also don't have any examples of rosaries whose beads are all right, but whose cross, medal or other parts are so stereotypically Art Deco, or 1960s, or postmodern, that they just about radiate their identity with those times. I really want at least one of those because it's a concept that's hard to explain without examples.

I don't even have an example of beads made out of rose petals. Now this is something I really ought to be able to remedy, since there's a jar of actual rose-petal paste, made from the roses around my house, sitting in my freezer waiting for me to get around to doing something with it. Failing that, they certainly aren't hard to find for sale. (My reasons for believing these are a modern invention are on the Paternoster-Row website.)

Most of the more complex modern glass or porcelain beads I can find seem to have Chinese faces, lots of silver foil, relentlessly cheery flowers, or aggressive-looking raised dots and spines on them. I noticed this particularly when I was looking for a suitably medieval "many-colored bead" recently for another project (of which more anon...). This is not to even mention the recent fad for beads with rhinestones .

On the other hand, I see that one can now make a rosary of glass beads shaped like frogs, owls, horseheads or pigs, should one wish to do such a thing. Shades of the medieval beads shaped like daisies and shoes.

And I'd love to have a rosary with beads made out of modern polymer clay -- just for fun, if I can find one that's affordable. Unfortunately for my pocketbook, they tend to be Works Of Art and priced accordingly.