Tickling the ivories
This is labeled as a 15th- or 16th-century French rosary, and is made of ivory -- and so far at least, it hasn't turned up in the V&A online database when I've looked for it, which means I really don't have any more solid information on it.
A couple of comparable single beads do turn up when I search on "ivory" or "rosary." (I think I discussed at least one of them in the Voldemort posts last fall.) Unfortunately those don't have much information attached either, just notes that they are 16th century and might be German or Flemish.
As a set of rosary beads, the imagery of this piece is rather odd to modern eyes. The only two motifs I can find that are unambiguously religious are the two flat plaques, one clearly showing a haloed saint holding a chalice and communion bread, and the other showing a man in a three-tiered tiara, who I assume represents a Pope.
The wreathed head at the bottom looks more like the head of a Roman hero than like that of a contemporary European, and it certainly doesn't have any of the distinguishing characteristics that would make it a head of Christ.
However I think we begin to get some glimmerings of understanding when we see that the reverse of this bead is a skull. A living head on one side and a skull or cadaver's head on the other is a fairly common Renaissance motif, referred to as "memento mori" (Remember Death).
The rest of the beads look quite secular.
Last fall's "Voldemort" series of posts showed this somewhat comparable set of three beads (front and back). They are clearly related to each other, but two have skull or skeleton features on the back, and the third does not -- it's a man on one side and a woman on the other, but both representations of living people.
So one possibility is that in the V&A piece we are seeing, by accident or design, a set of beads that are related to the "memento mori" designs -- but in this case, all living faces, mostly without skulls.
Another possibility is suggested by this bead (both sides shown). This is also from the V&A but was not on display when I visited.
The fact that one side shows a woman with what appears to me to be a man's head on a plate suggests to me that this is supposed to represent Salome, with the head of John the Baptist. If this is a Biblical reference, the king on the other side could represent Herod. While none of the "secular" heads on the V&A rosary carry symbols that I can see, it's possible they may represent Biblical characters as well.
Seeing Biblical personages in 16th-century dress should be no surprise, as we have abundant examples of that in other forms of art in this period, including paintings and needlework pictures. In modern times, we almost always see Bible characters in conventionalized "robes" (which may or may not have anything to do with what they really wore in 1st-century Palestine!) and so it takes some effort for us to recognize these people in a 16th-century disguise.
I'm not completely satisfied with this explanation, however. I can't help wondering whether anyone has done a comprehensive study of this type of carved ivory "bead" to discover how they were actually made, regarded, and used in the 16th century.
Some of them, clearly, like the middle beads here, were designed as part of a "set" since they have matching decorative elements at top and bottom. That suggests they may indeed have been strung in sequence as we see here -- though whether for use as a rosary, or simply as a decorative necklace, I don't know. (If the Art Nouveau movement could make jewelry with stylized ladies' heads on it fashionable, without it meaning much of anything, Renaissance art could certainly do the same.)
But often one of these little ivory carvings will appear in a collection as a single item, not obviously related to anything else. Like other "precious" artifacts, these beads seem mostly to have been passed down from collector to collector for their artistic value, but not necessarily with any solid information on where they originally came from. We might know a lot more about them if they had come from a grave or archaeological dig, where we could see what they were lying next to.
Because they are assumed to be "rosary beads", I suspect restorers have been quick to take a group of them and arrange them into a "rosary", but I wonder how much evidence there is that this is how they were originally used. I have certainly seen at least one string (here) that is clearly made from beads from two or more different sources, and I can't help wondering if this V&A example is another.
Posts in this series:
Death's head devotions
Skulls: the inside story
Skulls: the inside story, part 2
Skulls: the inside story, part 3
Voldemort, part 2
A skull of one's own
More living color