Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Statuesque II

In my previous post, Statuesque, I showed examples of two statues of people with rosaries -- one in ivory, one in alabaster. This time I have two statues that are both wood, but that take very different approaches in how they show the beads.

This first example is Saint Mary Magdalene -- you can tell it's her, because she always has some sort of little jar or container with her, representing the jar of ointment with which a repentant woman anointed Jesus's feet. (In the medieval mind, the Gospel stories of the woman taken in adultery, the woman who anointed Christ's feet and Mary the sister of Lazarus were all about the same person, despite the fact that the women in the first two stories are not named.)

WoodMagdalen WoodMagdalen-beads

Mary Magdalene also has some sort of association with the rosary, though I haven't been able to figure out exactly what. She is sometimes shown wearing one, but not always. But for some reason, she always shows up in image searches (for instance in Bildindex) using keywords related to rosaries, even when she's not actually wearing one.

This particular statue is carved in oak, a relatively dense and hard wood, and dates from around 1530. It's a little under three feet tall and is in the Archbishop's Museum in Utrecht. It was probably carved in the Cleves or Geldern area not too far away.

Most of Mary Magdalene's beads are not fully carved in the round, but are shown in relief against the surface of her gown. Compared to the last two examples and the next, they're on the small side -- maybe only half the diameter of her fingers, which would translate to 1/2 inch or so on a real-life person. The beads are very finely carved, even, and smooth, and you can clearly see that they come in two sizes (regular Ave beads and larger gauds). I would not be surprised to find there's more detail on the large round pomander at the bottom than we can see in this photo.

By contrast, we have a remarkably conceited-looking pilgrim here, who is carrying a rosary as part of her essential pilgrim-equipment.

walnut pilgrim

It's probably okay that she looks so conceited, since she is a saint: Saint Reneldis (various spellings), from the late 7th century, who became a nun in what is now Belgium after making a seven-year pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

(Biographical diversion: Reneldis's sister Gudula and brother Emebert are also saints, and their mother is Saint Amalberga, who is supposed -- in order to spread the Word of God -- to have crossed a lake riding on two sturgeons. Reneldis and others were killed by raiding Huns, and so in art, she is sometimes depicted with Huns dragging her by her hair.)

At any rate, Reneldis has a truly splendid set of wooden beads over her arm, and unlike Mary Magdalen's, almost half of them are completely free-carved, not attached to any backing. Early 20th-century photos of the statue are missing this portion of the beads, though, so what you see here is a modern restoration. But the beads shown against her gown are originals, and the restorers seem to have done a good job of matching them.

If I am deciphering the Flemish language in the description correctly, this statue is also carved of oak. It's an early 16th-century piece by the Master of Elsloo and was probably made in Limburg. It's 86 cm tall (about three feet). There is a detail photo online in which you can see that these are very big beads, nearly twice the diameter of the lady's fingers. Note also that there seem to be about four decades of beads, plus several small beads between the join and the cross.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

A Blessed Christmas to all!

I just have to show you this absolutely darling picture of the infant Jesus playing (anachronistically, of course) with beads. This is a detail from the Rottal votive panel -- a devotional painting commissioned by Jo:rg Rottal zu Talberg (Austria) in about 1505. I'd love to have a color picture of the entire thing for Christmas "wallpaper" on my computer: most of the saints are dressed in red and green, and the background is gold, tooled in fantastic curly leaf shapes.

A picture (black and white, unfortunately) of the entire painting is available here, and more details in color are here, here , here , here , and here .

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 22, 2005

If you've got it, flaunt it:

Wearing medieval rosaries, part 1

After writing about giving medieval-style rosaries and paternosters as gifts, it occurred to me it would be useful to see what we can find out about how to wear them.

With modern clothes, of course, a rosary is normally carried in a pocket or purse. But especially if you belong to a historical re-enactment group, you will probably want some guidance on how to wear your medieval rosary with your medieval clothes, especially for any holiday festivities. If you have a gorgeous medieval rosary, you will probably want to flaunt it!

Starting with the simplest, we have a number of portraits of people just holding their beads in their hands, or looped around a wrist or over the arm.

Many religious paintings intended to hang in churches have small pictures of their donors kneeling in front of the holy scene, and quite a few of these donors, if you look closely, are holding rosaries. Here's a typical pair of donors, another Austrian image from REALonline.

This is from one wing of a several-paneled altarpiece, dated to around 1518, by an unknown artist who signed his painting "AA".

When not actively praying, people may hold their rosaries looped over one arm, as in the statue on the left here, carved by the Master of Elsloo in the 1520s. The donor on the right is holding his in the same way: he is from a corner of Rodrigo de Osona the Younger's painting, "The Adoration of the Magi", ca. 1500.

In the 16th-century German woodcut below, the lady on the left looks as though she is removing her rosary from where she had it stashed inside one of her sleeves.


Some of the men's style "Tenners" or ten-bead strings have a wrist loop -- as seen in this portrait of a rather grumpy burgher:

Man with tenner

And the estimable Balthasar Eicheister, whose 1528 portrait you may have already seen in Balthasar's acorns, is wearing his rosary wrapped several times around his wrist, like a bracelet:

Balthasar acorns

Balthasar closeup

When I'm wearing medieval clothing, I'm usually also doing things with my hands, so I often look for ways to wear a rosary so it's visible and decorative, but out of my way. My experiments show that if you want a rosary wrapped around your wrist like Balthasar's to stay put and to hang at more or less even lengths, it needs to be fastened to your sleeve with a brooch that catches all of the strands. Otherwise, especially if the string of beads is slippery, it will slip around so that one loop hangs down too far and the others are pulled snug.

I've also tried -- though I haven't seen this in paintings -- looping a rosary several times around my upper arm, above the elbow -- again, firmly fastened with a brooch. This works very well, except that I've learned not to wear it this way when I'm driving a car, because it inevitably catches on the gearshift lever. I now have a red glass rosary with several beads that don't quite match the others, because the string snapped and spilled little red glass beads all over my car, and I never did find the last three of the ones that were missing.

posts in this series:

If you've got it, flaunt it
Rosaries on belts
Tying one on
Ring around the collar
Loops, drapes and dangles
Just hanging around
What did Margaret mean?


Sunday, December 18, 2005


As I've mentioned more than once, paintings of rosary beads often have to be taken with a few grains of salt, because painters -- especially medieval painters -- do not always paint exactly what they see. Sometimes the demands of "visual coding" override reality. (By "visual coding" I mean that the artist must produce something which is recognizable, and whose meaning "reads" correctly, to the intended audience.)

The same goes for sculptors, of course. In addition, there are the limitations of the material being worked with, whether wood, ivory or stone. Some materials are hard to carve, some let the sculptor show more fine detail, some can better support being carved very thin without breaking. Weight, hardness, and durability are also factors, as is where the sculpture is going to be installed -- you don't have to be very fussy about details for something that will be mounted sixty feet up on the west face of a cathedral.

But from the examples I've seen, the rule of thumb seems to be that beads should be BIG.

My first example is a small ivory statue of Saint Rose of Lima. It's about 13 inches tall, originally created in about 1700 in the Philippines, and was sold by Sotheby's in 2002 for almost 18,000 Euros. Saint Rose was born in Peru in 1586 and was canonized or "sainted" in 1671. She is usually shown in Dominican monastic robes and with a crown of thorns on her head.

3XMTL_AM0871-264 St-rose-detail

In this example she is also wearing a rosary around her neck. While everyone's Catholic grandmother has probably told them never, ever to do this, it was actually fairly common practice in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (I'll talk more about this sometime.)

The string of beads is short, making a nice necklace length. The beads appear to be about as big around as her middle finger, which would make them about 14 to 16 millimeters in diameter. (Fingers are very useful for estimating the size of beads being shown.)

My second example is Saint Zita, or properly Saint Sitha in this case because that's what she was called in England and this statue is English. Sitha or Zita was born in 1218 near Lucca, Italy, and is the patron saint of housewives, servants, waiters, and people who have lost their keys :) She is often shown with a bag, keys, and sometimes a rosary.

St-Sitha St-Sitha detail

This statue is carved in alabaster, a stone that is relatively soft and easy to carve. Alabaster was popular for statues because it is slightly transparent, so carved faces and hands can look remarkably realistic. Unfortunately it's also rather easy to break, so not many saints carved in alabaster survived the Reformation. This one is from ca. 1470-1500, and is now in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

Saint Sitha is holding a very simple rosary, just a loop of beads with a tassel. The carving of the beads is rather sketchy, but there seem to be about 40 of them and judging by her fingers, the beads are a little larger than Saint Rose's. If you look closely at the detail picture, you can see her keys (four of them) and a purse hanging from her belt, just to the right of the rosary.

(More about statues in the next post)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Goose is Loose

"When the fox preaches, beware our geese." -- English Proverb

When I mentioned my "rabbit rosary" post, Who Knew?, on the Paternosters mailing list, a few more animals with rosaries came to light.

Specifically, I now have two examples of geese bearing rosaries.

The first -- which my friend Heather Rose Jones pointed out to me -- is of the classic proverb illustration, a fox in a monk's cowl, preaching to a congregation of geese.


This is an impression from a 15th-century cookie mold from Bonn, Germany (see Comments for footnote). Cookie molds are a recognized, though not very well studied, form of folk art from late medieval Germany, and provide a wealth of Biblical, humorous and proverbial imagery.

You can see the fox, up in his pulpit, who has already collected two geese -- you can see the heads sticking out of his hood. Yet his congregation of pious geese are still listening to him. You can tell how pious they are because they are all carrying rosaries in their bills.

(Personally, I would find it somewhat difficult to recite the rosary -- or anything else -- while carrying a string of beads in my mouth. Demosthenes practicing his oratory with pebbles in his mouth comes to mind. But then, these are clearly allegorical geese, so it's all right. Allegories, like dreams and visions, do not have to make sense.)

The second was contributed by Katherine Barich, who very kindly scanned and posted it for the mailing list:

Goose with beads

This is also German, by Albert Glockendon from the 1535 Brevarium Horae Divinae, a Book of Hours now in the Nurnberg State Library.

Like the previous example, this goose (and her following fox) are also a satire on clergy who "prey" on their congregations. But in this case the goose is also poking fun at fashionably dressed women, who carry rosaries more as a display of wealth than as a true reflection of their devotion. The goose is not only carrying the type of large, rather ostentatious an expensive rosary that we've seen in Big, Red, and German and Big Berthas, she's also wearing the very fashionable "bundlein" headdress, which you can see on a real human in the Herlein Friedrich painting in Sunday's post on "wallpaper."

Perhaps I should have saved these postings for next April 1st, but they were just too cute and I had to share them!


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Paternosters as gifts

One of my correspondents wrote the other day asking:

"It's that time of year again, Christmas, and I was thinking of making a
Paternoster for a friend of mine. But I just wanted to check if they would
still be used by modern Catholics?"

Good question!

The short answer is "Yes." [grin]

The longer answer is still yes, but it comes in two parts: can a modern Catholic use the older styles of beads to pray the rosary, and can a modern Catholic use the older style of beads to pray an older style of prayers.

First, what the Roman Catholic Church prescribes for the modern rosary is a particular set of meditations and prayers, not beads. You can recite these prayers on an official set of "rosary beads," or while moving pebbles from one pile to another, or for that matter you can recite them counting on your fingers. Any method you choose for keeping track of the prayers is fine.

(Digression: It is my personal belief that the idea of reciting "round numbers" of prayers -- 10, 50, 100 -- is a human idea anyway. Humans are the ones who love to play with neat mathematical patterns; God, IMHO, cares in this instance mostly about the heart, and couldn't care less if there were 99 or 37 or 106 prayers instead of some exact number. One hundred is only an "exact" number if you are counting in base 10, anyway.)

So any string of beads that makes it easy to keep track of five groups of 10 Hail Marys, with an Our Father between each group, would be perfectly fine to use as a modern rosary. The person praying will have to remember to stick in a few prayers at the beginning that wouldn't have corresponding beads, but that's no big deal. I would recommend for this purpose that you make either a loop or a straight paternoster/rosary with that "five tens" type of construction (i.e. 50 small beads and 5 larger ones).


By the way, while getting one's beads blessed by a priest is very important to some Catholics, I would encourage users of medieval or other "nonstandard" sets NOT to worry about some priest or other refusing to bless a set that wasn't what they were used to seeing. Go right ahead and ask. In all probability, they won't bat an eye, and if they do, all the owner of the beads has to say is, "It's a medieval form," and I'm sure that would take care of it. In fact, the priest would probably be intrigued; most of them don't know any more about the history of the rosary than they learned in seminary, and some of that's likely to be out of date (the St. Dominic myth, for instance).

Second question: also yes, you can pray any sequence of prayers you happen to like on whatever beads you choose. There are already hundreds, if not thousands, of such devotions, both historical and modern, of which the conventional rosary is just one. If the string of beads used is not a standard rosary, it's called a "chaplet" instead.

As for origins, some of these "chaplet" devotions are spread by devotees who believe they were instructed by God or Mary in a vision to use a certain type of prayers, and perhaps a specific form of beads. The chaplet of "Our Lady's Tears" comes to mind: if I'm remembering correctly, the woman who originated it says that Mary specified in her vision that the beads should be white.

Other such devotions were frankly just made up by someone -- often a revered leader or teacher. Someone might just have the idea that it would be a good devotional exercise to say, for instance, 33 repetitions of some prayer to commemorate the 33 years Jesus is said to have lived on earth. They may then start encouraging others to do so, writing leaflets about it, and turning out sets of 33 beads for people to use: presto, a new chaplet!

So if you think your modern Catholic recipient would be interested, you can certainly give them a different form of beads and tell them how they were historically used.

For instance, I rather like my green jasper paternoster , which is a simple loop of fifty 12mm beads with a large silver terminal bead and a silk tassel. The beads are all sorts of lovely shades of green and mauve and gray and I can imagine a lot of people would be pleased to have such a gift. This is the sort of beads that might have been used in the 13th or 14th century to recite 50 or 150 Our Fathers.

A man or any other busy person (historically it's a Guy Thing, but modernly, who cares) might like a simple string of ten beads with a ring at one end and a cross at the other, like my "Zehner."

Historically, this could have been used to simply say a set number of Our Fathers, or it could have been used to say a number of Hail Marys, or of Our Fathers each of which is followed by a Hail Mary and a "Gloria" ... there are lots of possibilities.

If you need them, class-tested instructions for a variety of paternosters and "finishes" are here.


Sunday, December 11, 2005

Wallpaper -- with rosaries

'Tis the season, and if you have a computer whose screen you stare at a lot, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to decorate all that blank expanse of screen with something seasonal and worth looking at.

So herewith, a brief guide to some nice "wallpaper" images that just happen to show medieval rosaries and paternosters in them.

Both my home and work computers have BIG screens, so I look for images that are around 900 to 1500 pixels wide. Some smaller images can be enlarged and still look good, but most will start to look blurry and odd if you enlarge them too much.

This is the one I currently have on my desktop at work:

It's a Southern German panel painting by Herlin Friedrich from 1488, originally part of an altarpiece. This image from REALonline is only 624 pixels wide, so enlarged on my 21-inch screen it doesn't exactly look stellar, but for a smaller screen it can look okay. And it's cheerful, it's red and green, and it shows a whole family of kneeling people (parents, five daughters and four sons) all of whom are carrying rosaries. Most of the rosaries seem to be coral, except perhaps the father's. Mom seems to be nudging her oldest daughter to please take hers off her belt and use it!

This one is rather dark. It was painted by the "Master of the Saint Lucy Legend" around 1488 and is now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. (When you see a painting by the "Master of.." something or other, it means we know the artist from other works but don't know his name.)

This image is over 1000 pixels wide, so it's nice and sharp. I run pictures like this through Photoshop to adjust brightness and color balance. This and the next two pictures all come from the Web Gallery of Art, a splendid picture source.

If you like "saint spotting," this picture has the "mystical marriage" of Saint Catherine -- the Infant Jesus is giving her a ring, and you can tell it's Catherine he's giving it to because she is wearing velvet patterned with wheels, her badge of identity. Saint Agnes in the right foreground is holding a lamb on her lap, and she has a nice long coral rosary hanging from her belt. There are two saints with tongs, and both of them are holding rosaries too -- the one on the left has a straight rosary with two tassels, only the second time I've seen this type on a woman. One of these two is probably Saint Apollonia, who was martyred by having all her teeth pulled out (hence the tongs) but I can't tell which one.

This one has the Infant Jesus entertaining himself with his devotee's rosary:

It's another panel painting, this time by an unknown artist, probably Flemish. It dates to about 1475 and is in the Musée d'Art Religieux et d'Art Mosan, Liège.

And lastly, can you spot the rosary in this one?

This is the central panel of the St. Columba Altarpiece, painted around 1455 by Rogier van der Weyden. (Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Yes, that's right -- it's being held by the kneeling spectator at the very left edge of the picture with his hands resting on top of the stone wall.

As in these panels, the commonest place to find rosaries in Nativity scenes and other religious paintings is in the hands of the donors included in the painting. But whenever saints are pictured as ordinary people in contemporary dress, they too may be carrying rosaries, however anachronistic.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Who knew?

I took some time yesterday evening to systematically go through all the images that come up when you search on Betschnur (the common Austrian word for a rosary) in REALonline, an index of photo images from museums in Austria. (See here for more about this source.)

Now this is an angle on rosary history I had never considered: apparently, as early as 1481, the practice of using paternosters had already spread into the animal kingdom. Here's the evidence:

Rabbit rosary

(and yes, I'm joking...)

To see more information (in German) on this image, go to REALonline. Unfortunately they don't make it easy to give a direct link to a particular image, so do this:

Click on the button that says Auswählen.

Then enter 007446A into the blank toward the bottom of the left-hand column (just above where it says Rechtstrunkierung möglich...).

Click the button just below it that says Zeige Bilder. That should take you there.

This image comes -- along with quite a few other images, which you can see if you click on the Voriges Bild and Nächstes Bild buttons -- from an antiphonal, which is a music manuscript giving all the "antiphons" or plainchant refrains used in church services through the year. The manuscript is dated 1481 and may have come from Vienna. It's now in a university library in Graz, Austria.

The manuscript has a splendid collection of illuminated initials showing saints, and in the margins, quite a few other amusing bits, including a harper, a scribe, a stretching cat, and a fox carrying a hen(with a mischievous hooded face just below it).

Sheer serendipity!