Monday, May 30, 2005

Home for Retired Rosaries

I've noticed that if you are known as someone interested in sewing, people are likely to call you up and say casually, "I have these seven boxes of old fabric taking up space in my garage, would you like them?"

I always say yes to these offers, and I enjoy sorting through them and finding interesting things. (Once it was a brown paper shopping bag with all the cutout pieces for a 1930s quilt!) Anything I don't want, I'm perfectly happy to offer to others later, or take to Goodwill.

I'm now becoming known as someone interested in rosaries, and people are beginning to ask me if I'd like their old things from when they "used to be Catholic" :). Of course, just as with fabric, some of these things are junk, but I've acquired some interesting items.

A few weeks ago I acquired a couple of rosaries and some other odds and ends this way. The little plastic bag I was handed contained a wooden rosary, a pink glass rosary, a couple of medals, a Sunday School pin, a "Pardon" crucifix missing its corpus (representation of Jesus' body), another crucifix, and the detached "corpus" from yet another crucifix (no, it doesn't fit the Pardon crucifix, I checked; the holes are in the wrong places).


The wooden rosary is definitely going into my teaching collection as an example of a modern rosary that would not be out of place if transported to the 16th century (see Rosaries for RenFaire). I'm not sure yet exactly what I'm doing with the other bits. There's sometimes a decent market for such things on eBay.

There were also some fragments of silk (?) grosgrain ribbon with two crosses, a heart, an anchor, and a crossbar all of sterling silver.

FAITH hope charity

These last are rather intriguing. I am not sure all five belong together, but the crossbar, heart, anchor and one cross look like they originally formed a "faith, hope, charity" cluster. The heart is engraved with a set of initials, which look like "DWT" (or perhaps F -- it may be clearer when I've cleaned it). The wider cross that may not belong to the set says "I H N" on one side, and on the other side it's dated 1886. (I don't know whether the "IHN" is someone's initials or whether it may stand for something -- "In Hoc Nomine" or "In His Name," perhaps?)

(to be continued)

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Big red rosaries II

So as I mentioned last week, one of the things I did in preparation for the exhibit at the International Medieval Congress was to re-string a couple of my rosary replicas that I wasn't satisfied with.
I'd made a "Big Red Rosary" some time ago, because a string of 16-18mm red (dyed) sponge-coral beads came my way. I've always been fascinated by the huge coral rosaries that appear in a number of 16th-century portraits (see yesterday's entry for references). I'd found one large pierced silver bead at a gem show, which became my pomander:

Big red German detail

To fill it, I made a small bag of black net and inserted it into the pomander with the mouth of the bag outside. Then I poked small bits of clove, cinnamon bark and allspice through the hole into the bag until there was a good quantity in there, sewed the bag closed, and tucked the top inside.

I've been looking at pictures and catalogs for more than two years, trying to find some silver beads that were the right size and a plausible shape for the marker beads, and that looked as though they were in something of the same style. Eventually I found some sterling silver "flying saucer" shaped beads I thought would do. I haven't seen this shape in any of the period portraits -- if anything, silver gauds in the portraits tend to be long double-cones instead -- but all the beads I could find in that shape were too small and much too fussy in their decoration.

At the same time, I found some silver end-caps for the pomander, since the wooden disks I'd used tended not to stay put, and also some silver-plated small beads to add to the string as "Zwischenperlen" (as the Germans call the "in-between" beads). Again, I haven't seen this exact combination in a portrait, but considering how many other strings of rosary beads have Zwischenperlen, it seemed plausible.

So here is the new configuration: longer, more glittery, and incidentally, also strung on a somewhat thicker and stronger silk cord, which makes me feel a bit safer wearing it.Red silver German

And a closeup:

Red silver detail

I think the wealthy 16th-century burghers' wives who owned the originals would approve :).


Friday, May 27, 2005

Mystery Hands

Many of the donors, bystanders and other contemporary people who appear holding rosaries in paintings are at a relatively small scale compared to the painting as a whole.

This means that the best way to show the beads clearly, in as much detail as possible, is to take a closeup photo of the person's hands and beads.

This leaves me with a certain number of "mystery hands" illustrations to ponder. These are closeups, often used for book covers or jackets, frontispieces or endpapers. They show wonderful rosaries, but often I can't find a mention of exactly what painting those hands belong to.

So you'll understand I'm happy to have attached one of my pairs of "mystery hands" to someone! They belong to Claus Stalburg (or Stalburger, or possibly Stralenburg), painted by the "Master of the Stalburg Portraits" in Frankfurt, Germany, in the early 1500s.

Here's the painting I was trying to trace -- and as you see, the copy I have is printed in black and white.


I don't even remember exactly what I was looking for in the Marburg Photo Index, but when I saw this portrait, I knew I'd found the right hands:

Claus Stalburger

Claus Stalburg (1469-1524) was a member of the governing council of Frankfurt, and later Mayor. He married Margaretha Vom Rhein (1509?-1558?), who was some 40 years his junior. I'd be tempted to think she was his daughter rather than his wife, except that the portrait of her (if correctly identified) is clearly one of a matching pair, a common form of married-couple portraits. And of course such marriages were not unknown, or perhaps she was his second wife. Here's the pair of them:

Stalburgs both

And here is a closeup of Margaretha:

Margaretha Stalburg

I'm interested in the rosary beads both of them are holding. Clearly they are very similar, but not identical. Hers seem to have five decades, rather than three (?), but the beads and pomander are smaller than her husband's. While both are fairly short loops, they seem to be of the same general type as the large coral beads shown in a number of 16th-century German portraits (see Big, Red and German; Big Berthas, It's a Guy thing, and Vicomte and Vicomtesse).

An extensive Web search finally turned up a very small pair of images in color -- small because they are advertising for large versions of the same images, for sale by Artothek.

And I was delighted to see that, while you can't see much detail in these little images, the beads are clearly that nice, bright coral-red.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

My rosaries were in Kalamazoo...

This sounds like a feeble excuse for something, but it's actually something I want to toot my own horn about, just a bit (grin).

I couldn't be at the International Congress for Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan this year (May 5-8), due to work commitments. However I'd been asked to send an exhibit of my rosary "teaching collection" (replicas of historical rosaries) for the Artisans Gallery reception on Friday night of the conference.

It took burning the midnight oil a few nights, but I succeeded in creating a couple of new rosaries and re-stringing one I already had with some new additions (I finally found some marker beads to go with the pomander). I also produced a "showbook" with pictures and explanation of the sources I used to make these replicas. All this got packed up and FedExed to the friend who'd agreed to take care of it for me (thanks, Danielle!). I think I made the FedEx pickup deadline with about an hour to spare :)

I knew I'd have to live up to the good placement my display would have, so I sent along a piece of black velveteen big enough to cover the whole table, as an appropriate "foil" for all the glittery stuff. The coordinator of the gallery says I was one of her "inspirations" for doing the gallery project in the first place, and she honored me by putting my display as #1 -- front and center, on the first table people saw as they walked in the door.

Distaff rosaries

I just got the first pictures back, and it was a great success! The gallery attracted over 400 enthusiastic people to see the displays of medieval shoes, clothes, a Viking loom, silk knitting, and more. The organizer's comment was that there was a truly amazing amount of talent packed into that room. I'm told there were always people at least two deep around the rosary display. I'll be interested to see the impact on my Web traffic :)

I'll be posting some more pictures as I get to it.

Friday, May 13, 2005


Every so often the urge hits to do the smallest possible version of something. A lot of people -- me included -- find miniatures utterly fascinating, I suspect partly because our parental instincts class anything tiny as "cute."

While I was procrastinating one day awhile back (see Bishop Bob's Beads), I made a couple of miniature rosaries, one of which was this one:


It's made from ordinary #11 gold seed beads strung on sewing thread, a few synthetic pearls, and a tiny cross that I happened to have lying around. At two inches, it's approximately 1/10 scale (appropriate for a person six or seven inches tall ;-).

Periodically a spate of miniature rosaries appears on eBay as well, though exactly how miniature they are varies.

The most common version of "miniature" is actually about twelve inches long, made of somewhat larger seed beads than my mini-mini, and with a wire-chain construction. In fact, I own one of these, which I've had since I was about six.


(My very Protestant parents were not especially pleased with my interest in rosaries, but if I wanted to spend my allowance on them, they didn't prevent me. I remember my medium-sized clear crystal one cost me a whole dollar...)

These are commonly sold together with a case or locket, and can sometimes sell for as much as a full-sized rosary, even though they're usually of very cheap base-metal construction with thin cut-and-stamped medals that can seem scarcely thicker than tinfoil. (But of course you can't tell that from a picture.)

I've also seen tiny one-decade rosaries like this one -- admittedly, if there were a contest for "smallest rosary" these would have to be in a different category. The little purse on this one measures about 1+1/4 inches square.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Vicomte and Vicomtesse

As I mentioned in Seeking at Sotheby's, a pair of really nice paintings turned up of a married couple both holding red (presumably coral) rosaries. Interestingly, they're dated rather late for this type of portrait: 1624 and 1629 (most of the others I've seen are before 1600). Not only that, they're French; most of the others I've seen are German. They are identified by their coats of arms as the Vicomte and Vicomtesse d'Amphernet.

The Vicomte:


A closeup of his beads:

The Vicomtesse:


Her beads:

My guess is that this rather old-fashioned (by that time) kind of portrait was requested by the sitters because it was fashionable when they were younger. Here they're being painted at ages 75 (the Vicomte) and 64 (the Vicomtesse). Both are abundantly provided with furs, lace, and gold jewelry. This is clearly a portrait of marriage, success, status and wealth as well as piety -- exactly how they would want to be remembered.

Both paintings are unsigned and are in oils on canvas, each about 39 by 31 inches. Their earliest recorded sale is from the Chartreux de Lyon in 1877; they were bought by the family of Comte Max de Lalaing and sold again in 1953.

They were originally attributed to "Pourbus" but this is rather puzzling. The Pourbus family produced three generations of painters: Pieter, Frans I, and Frans II. But Frans II died in 1622, so if the dates on these paintings are correct, he couldn't have painted them.


Monday, May 09, 2005

The #1 question

The most common question I get from people who have found my website or the Paternosters mailing list is: "What type of rosary would be appropriate for a [#]th century person from [place]?"

Unfortunately it's not an easy question to answer.

The major reason is that there's not a whole lot of specific evidence to go on. There are very few surviving sets of beads; none, as far as I know, are complete any earlier than the late 15th or early 16th century. Evidence from portraits is almost entirely from the 15th and 16th centuries as well, and I've only begun to collect evidence from wills and other documents. I am sure there's lots more evidence out there, but it seems to be very spotty and it doesn't seem that anyone's collected it all in one place.

I can say that what I have isn't nearly enough yet to let me detect any differences according to what country something comes from. It may very well be that there isn't much difference by country; certainly in clothing fashions, there are times and places where people in several widely spread countries are wearing pretty much the same things. On the other hand, I may just not have enough data for trends or differences to become apparent. I do see special "types" being prevalent at certain times and places -- the large coral rosaries in 16th-century Germany, for instance. But aside from those, I really can't say anything useful about (for instance) French rosaries versus English rosaries versus Dutch rosaries.

There is also, of course, not just one "correct" type for a given time and place. We have documentation in the 15th century, for instance, for straight strings of twenty beads or so and loops of fifty with "gauds" or marker beads, among other types. Even after the Council of Trent (1569) we see several different types in use: short strings of ten beads, loops of fifty or sixty with gauds and a cross, and loops of fifty with the "tail" of five added beads that are universal on today's rosaries.

However, clearly there's a need for information by century, even if it turns out that the information includes several "right answers" instead of just one. So in the medium-to-long-range plans for the Paternoster-Row website, a series of "century pages" or the equivalent will definitely have a place.

I'm really just at the beginning of trying to tap into all the information that is out there, so who knows what I will find!

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Thursday, May 05, 2005


After looking at a few of the surviving "tenner" rosaries (see Counting to ten), I have begun to suspect that while some of them were originally designed that way, others are composed of "orts" -- a delightful old word that means "leftovers."

The Chatsworth paternoster, for instance, once owned by Henry VIII, was clearly designed that way; we can tell because the program of carvings includes complete "sets" of motifs -- all twelve apostles, for instance. If there were originally more beads, some "sets" would probably be incomplete.

On the other hand, one of the tenners featured in Eithne Wilkins' The Rose-Garden Game made me think twice.


In its current form, this is composed of twelve beads carved (or so it's said) from apricot kernels, and a tassel (the funny-looking thing on the end), with what look like silver-gilt and enameled beads and small pearls in between. The beads are fairly typical of rich rosaries of the late 16th century, and the tassel is black enamel and gold with five chains of small pearls and turquoises. It's probably Italian and dates to sometime around 1560; it's now in Munich (Treasury of the Residenz). So at first sight there's not too much that's odd about it.

But why twelve beads? Most rosaries, even the short ones, seem to be in multiples of 10, 50 or sometimes 5. Offhand the only devotional practice I can think of that goes in 12s is the daily prayer of members of the Secular Franciscans, who are supposed to say twelve Our Fathers each day, as a substitute for the psalms recited daily by the friars. (I have actually made myself a "twelver" specifically for this.)

It's possible, however, that what we're really looking at here is an accidental number twelve: the remains of a longer rosary that has broken, and it has either been shortened to produce a more practical number, or perhaps, just kept in someone's possession for the sake of the special beads.


My clue that this might be the case is a close look at the photo of the end of this string, the one not attached to the decorative tassel. I can see what looks like a loose end of the cord on which everything is strung. If this had been designed to have exactly twelve beads, I'd expect to see something attached to the other end, probably either another tassel or a ring. This looks more like a broken end to me.

Almonds broken end

I don't know if anyone's made a study of this piece, but I'd be interested to see what they said if so.

Monday, May 02, 2005

More from the Marburg

While looking for something else last week, I happened to trip over another nice rosary painting.

I was actually hoping to find a color version online somewhere of the St. George altarpiece by Friedrich Herlin (late 1400s) since it has a nice picture of a lady with one of the less common types of rosary, one using wooden or bone disks as counters rather than round beads.

German nun

I searched on Herlin in the Marburg Foto Index (for more about this source, see, and found that yes indeed there's a photo of that altarpiece.... but only one, and it's not the one I wanted. Here's St. George (being martyred, I presume):

... but we don't get to see the kneeling donors of the painting on the left and right wings, just this center panel.

However the search turned up three more paintings by Herlin, so I took a look at them, and lo and behold, here's another donor with a rosary:

Unicorn Donor fm1554559a

This is a detail of the "Mother of God with St. Barbara and Founders", painted around 1467:


This tells me something useful. I had always thought the ladies in the St. George altarpiece were nuns: at least in a black and white photo, they certainly look like they are dressed that way. However this lady is dressed exactly the same, and she can't be a nun, because she has children.

Just another of the little random bits of information out there waiting for someone to discover them....

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Köln Collection

I've mentioned the Marburg Photo Archive a number of times here, but there's one particular place in it that I've been meaning to mention. The Diocesan Museum in Cologne, Germany, has what's probably the biggest single bunch of rosaries pictured in one place, and it's fairly easy to get to.

Other collections, alas, are not so easy to find -- I've tripped over a number of really interesting rosaries and rosary paintings, but largely by accident. (I really wish this collection was better indexed -- see my notes on

Here are the directions. Go to the main site, click on the introductory "splash" page, then click on these words as they come up:
- Orte (= Places)
- Köln (= Cologne; this is its name in German)
- Sammlungen (= Collections)
- Diözesanmuseum (= Diocesan Museum)
- Kunstgewerbe (= Applied Arts)
- Schmuck (= Jewelry)

Practically everything beyond the first three items is a rosary of some kind.

The diocese of Cologne seems particularly rich in rosaries, at least partly for historical reasons. Cologne is where the first European "rosary society" was founded in 1475, and the city is very proud of this. There was a large special exhibition in 1975 to mark 500 years of the rosary, and the exhibit catalog (500 Jahre Rosenkranz), while it doesn't have nearly as many pictures as I'd like, is one of my most relied-on reference books (I think I found a copy for about $35 through A good many of the rosaries in the book are pictured on this web page also.


P.S. I found the other day that there are a few more pictures at the site for the Cathedral library, which held a small rosary exhibit during 2003 to mark the "Year of the Rosary." The above image is from a liturgical book -- the Graduale of Grosz-St.-Martin, dating to around 1500.