Monday, September 11, 2006

Crystal gazing III


More saints, and more mysteries!


One of the problems in identifying saints on these beads is that I can't be sure whether a set of beads like this would repeat the same saint more than once. There are, for instance, two saints named John (7.2 and 2.1) -- which could be the same saint twice, or two different Johns.

(5.1) In the same way, bead 5 is one of three places that have a saint whose name seems to be "MATHEUS", which could either refer to Saint Matthew the Evangelist, or to Saint Matthias (Judas Iscariot's replacement as an apostle). In favor of Matthias on this bead is the fact that he's carrying a halberd.

At any rate, the woman on this bead is clearly Saint Barbara. You can see her tower over at the right-hand edge of the bead.

5.1 TomI06463f09a

(5.2) This side is also fairly clear, with Saint Thomas (a.k.a. "Doubting" Thomas) on the left with a spear, and Saint Helen on the right with the True Cross, which legend says she located in Jerusalem.


(4.1) Here things start to get more difficult. The fact that the smaller beads are more difficult to decipher could simply be due to the difficulties of photography, but it's also possible they may be more worn. If so, this suggests to me that the original owner may have fingered the smaller beads more often, thus perhaps wearing them out sooner. Whether this would mean these were the beads closer to the wearer's belt or the beads at the bottom or "loose" end of the string I can't tell -- you could make a logical argument for either position. Comparison with other straight paternosters, however, suggests most of them have the largest beads at the bottom.

By the way, I owe considerable thanks to the folks who have made suggestions about the identity of some of these "mystery saints," especially those on the medieval-religion list at


I, and several of these good people, all think that the woman on the right on this bead (4.1)is probably Saint Clara (of Assisi). The name looks like hers, and she is carrying what looks like a small lantern with something inside, which would be the monstrance (glass-walled container for the consecrated bread) with which she is supposed to have frightened off the Saracens who were about to attack her convent.

The gentleman on the left is a mystery. The only one of the twelve apostles who seems to be missing from this set is Saint James the Less, but he could either be here or down on bead 1 (one side of which is completely indecipherable).

(4.2) On the left, this appears to be Saint Simon. He is clearly holding a saw (symbol of his martyrdom) and the letters S and M are visible on his ribbon.


It's harder to tell who is on the right. Whoever it is seems to be holding a small, flat cross, and although the curator's notes suggest Saint Jude, I actually do think this might be a woman. The hair is quite long and wavy down the figure's back, and the neckline of the gown appears to be gathered -- which seems to be more characteristic of women than men in this style of art. The letters Y (or V) S A are visible on the ribbon. No popular saint with this letter combination springs to my mind (of course, no sooner do I post this than I will think of one!).


(3.1) I and several other readers agree this is Saint Jude Thaddeus (S . I U D A S) and Saint Agatha (A G A T A). Saint Jude is often shown with a carpenter's square, but here he seems to have a staff. It's possible that the white blob just below the hole in the bead is one of Saint Agatha's cut-off breasts that she is holding -- she is frequently shown holding them cheerfully on a tray in front of her, looking rather like muffins!

JudeAg-e09a AfraI06463f07a

(3.2) On the left here is one of the three "Matthew" labeled saints (S . M A T E U) This does appear to be Saint Matthew the Evangelist because he is holding a book, and he has covered his hands so he is not touching the book directly. This is a gesture of reverence, suggesting this book may represent Matthew's Gospel.

The woman on the right appears to be rather clearly named "Afra" (A F R A) and seems to be tied to something I can't quite make out by a rope around her wrists. I had never heard of her, but apparently she is a martyr from the time of the Emperor Diocletian (ca. 300AD) from Bavaria -- which explains her presence on a German paternoster. According to her biography, she was burned at the stake.


I'm going to skip bead 2 for the moment and go directly to bead 1, the smallest. This bead is clearly either the most difficult to photograph or in the worst shape, because only one of the four saints on it seems to be decipherable. I can't see anything at all useful on side 1, although there's enough lettering visible to suggest it might be more readable if I were holding it and could see past the glare.

1.2 1.1

(1.2) The other side is just a bit better. I can at least make out a few of the letters on the ribbons. The woman on the right might be Saint Agnes (A ? G ?) with a lamb -- though the accidents of photography make the white area in front of her look rather more like a teddy bear to me. On the left, I can make out letters that look like E G (or C) M (or W) but this doesn't suggest anything offhand.


(2.1)This is getting rather long, but I wanted to get to bead 2 because it seems to have a "theme" of its own. On side 1 are the third Matthew ( _ A T H V S) with his "winged man" symbol clearly visible below, and Saint Mark (S. M A R C U _) with the head of his lion down by his feet.

2.1 2.2

(2.2) The second side has a rather clear Luke on the left (S. L U C A S), although if there is a winged ox around anywhere I don't see it. Poor Saint John on the right is nearly blotted out by glare, but the letters S. J O H (or N) are just visible on the ribbon. The curator's notes suggest this is Saint John the Baptist, but with three of the four Evangelists located on this bead, it would make more sense for this to be Saint John the Evangelist.

If so, then perhaps the John on bead 7 might be John the Baptist. I don't see any useful symbols on that bead, but the male figure is standing, partly leaning on a staff, and gesturing widely with a hand holding what looks like a rolled-up piece of paper. The Gospels are more often symbolized by large, heavy books, so perhaps this is not an evangelist.

Having "disposed of" one of the three Matthews by identifying him on bead 5 as Saint Matthias, we are still left with two. I actually do think that Saint Matthew the Evangelist is in this string of beads twice, and here's why.

Whoever designed these beads seems to have been doing several things at once. One was to provide images of a list of generally popular saints, including Barbara, Dorothy, Margaret, and probably all 12 apostles (Matthias replacing Judas). Less common or more regional saints like Afra, perhaps Clara and maybe one or more of the ones we can't see may have been specially requested by the owner. The third "program" was to include a few more general images related to the stories of Creation and salvation, such as the images on the two largest beads.

So perhaps it did not seem odd to the original owner that a few saints might appear twice: once in the list of popular saints and again in their "proper place" as one of the Evangelists.

There's another possible explanation, something I've seen happen to a few of the surviving "Passion" rosaries -- a past curator may have assembled one "complete" item from the bits and pieces of more than one original. When I see a Passion rosary that has the unusual number of 12 decades and duplicates several of the symbols, I strongly suspect that's what happened. In the case of these rock-crystal beads, I think that's far less likely. These are fairly elaborate and expensive, and I would guess that they might have been custom-made. Beads from another set would stand out as different, or would not fit neatly into the sequence of sizes.

This is a unique and fascinating piece -- almost as fascinating as the carved ivory rosary belonging to a Bishop Fugger in Augsburg, which I hope to talk about another time. Unfortunately there are far fewer pictures of that one.


Friday, September 08, 2006

Crystal gazing II

In my last post, Crystal Gazing, I was taking a close look at an interesting and complex rock-crystal paternoster I discovered while browsing through the Schnutgen Museum collection on Bildindex.

I was in rather a hurry, and I realize I missed a few points.

First, here's how I'm interpreting the structure of these beads -- as near as one can tell from a photo, that is. This is supposed to be a cross-section through a single bead as strung on the original cord. I don't know whether it's correct, but it's my best guess.


I forgot to mention a date for this piece. The museum label says it is 17th century: as usual, there's no indication of who determined this or on the basis of what evidence, if any. I am not an art expert, but it looks earlier than that to me -- be that as it may.

And I forgot to say anything about size. A couple of the beads were photographed with a ruler, which looks like it is marked in millimeters (it's not labeled). If that's so, it would indicate the largest bead of this series is a little over an inch across.


Now back to the beads. (I'm showing you all the photos, enhanced as best I can, but in order to see the details, you will probably have to click on the photos to see the enlarged version: at least, you will if you have eyes like mine!)

Only two of the ten beads in this rock-crystal paternoster have scenes related to Christ, Mary or Biblical stories. All the others show saints -- at least, all the ones that can be deciphered.

Each face of each of the remaining eight beads seems to show two saints, most of them in a standing position, and the painter has thoughtfully identified each one for us with a vertical ribbon bearing the saint's name. Many, but not all, of the pairs have a male saint on the left as we look at the bead (in heraldry this "dexter" position is the position of greater status) and a woman saint on the right.

Besides the name labels, many of the saints bear recognizable symbols. There is a fairly universal "code" of these symbols in medieval Europe, which specifies that many popular saints are always shown holding or carrying some particular object. This makes them easy to identify even for the illiterate, or where they aren't so thoughtfully labeled.

Since we've already discussed beads 10 and 9, I'll start with bead 8 and make a few comments. Bildindex has photos of both faces of all the beads, which I've cleaned up as much as I can to show here.


Side 8.1: Saints Peter and Veronica. Less clear, but Saint Peter has his keys and Saint Veronica is displaying her napkin, on which the face of Christ is imprinted. (In legend, this occurred when she offered her napkin to wipe Christ's face on his way to the Crucifixion.)

8.1 8.2

Side 8.2: Saints Andrew and Margaret. If you squint, you can more or less see that Saint Andrew is carrying some large pieces of wood, which constitute his distinctive X-shaped cross. Saint Margaret is standing on (actually emerging from) a dragon, whose head you can see below her to the left. Considering that legend says she was swallowed by the dragon and then burst out by splitting the dragon's stomach open, the dragon looks remarkably lively!


7.1: Saints (?) and Dorothy. Saint Dorothy very clearly has her basket of roses (from heaven), but the male saint of this pair is rather obscure. We'll get back to him in a minute.

JamesDor-e13a JonCath-f11a

7.2: Saints John (?) and Catherine. Catherine has her spiked wheel beside her. But which John is this? The museum curators suggest it's Saint John the Evangelist (author of the Gospel of John).

A plausible guess is that this ought to be John the Evangelist, based on the conventional order in which the twelve Apostles of Christ are named: Peter, Andrew, James, John. Bead 8 has Peter and Andrew, making it reasonable that the next bead would have James and John. This would make the "mystery man" on side 1 of this bead Saint James the Greater, and that's who I think it is. There isn't much visible through the glare, but I think he is wearing his distinctive pilgrim's hat, although we can't see whether he has the pilgrim's staff, drinking gourd and scallop shell that go with it. John, on side 2, is standing with his mouth open (preaching?) and clasps a scroll in his right hand. If he had any of John the Evangelist's other emblems nearby (an eagle, a chalice, or a cauldron of boiling oil!), that would clinch the identification.


6.1: Saint Bartholomew and Saint Mary Magdalen. Because I already know what it looks like, I can see Saint Bartholomew's broad-bladed butcher's knife in his right hand -- legend says he was flayed alive. I actually don't see the alabaster jar of ointment that I would expect Mary Magdalen to be carrying, but her name is quite clear. Legend identifies Mary of Magdala with the woman who anointed Jesus' feet, although more modern scholars think they were probably two different women.

Bart-Mag-e12a PhilUrs-10a

6.2: Saints Philip and Ursula. Saint Philip has his cross-topped staff. Saint Ursula is wearing a crown -- legend has it that she was a king's daughter -- although I can't see whether she has any other attributes or not. She is often shown either with arrows (by which she was supposed to have been martyred) or with a few of the 11,000 other maidens supposedly martyred with her. Clearly they would not all fit on this small bead!


All of these things would probably be a lot clearer if I had these beads in my hand and could tilt them back and forth to see what's under the spots of glare. If the paintings are in color, that would help too. Since I'm hoping my next research trip will be to Germany, these are on my list of artifacts I'd like to see and photograph close up.

I'll try to disentangle the rest of the saints in the next post.
(to be continued...)


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Crystal gazing

Once in awhile I have time to just go randomly searching through likely places in search of rosaries I haven't seen. Bildindex, the index to the Marburg Foto Archive, for instance, is very poorly indexed, and while rosaries are most commonly filed under "Schmuck" (jewelry), they are sometimes in quite different categories. So a bit of browsing is often worthwhile.

I recently took a look through the Bildindex photos from the Schnutgen Museum in Köln (Cologne, Germany) with just this in mind. I knew this museum had quite a few religious artifacts, since I'd already found a lot of interesting "skull" beads there (which I discussed in this series of posts last fall).(And by the way, the exhibition that just opened this week there is on "Beauty to die for! Old age, the Dance of Death and funereal art from 1500 to the present day".)

Sure enough, when I looked under "Glas" in the materials list, something very interesting turned up:


This is a "Zehner," a rosary (or paternoster) of ten beads, a type often carried by Renaissance men. In typical fashion, it has a cross at one end and something else at the other: in this case, though it's hard to tell from the photo, it looks as though it's just a large fancy metal bead. (My guess would be gilded silver.)

It's filed under "glass" because according to the photo caption, the ten beads are made from painted "Bergkristall" (rock crystal). Natural rock crystal is not glass, of course, but the two are very similar: natural rock crystal is harder than glass, but some pieces that don't show either the natural flaws of rock crystal or the tiny air bubbles common in glass can only be told apart by testing their hardness. Unlike glass, rock crystal was a high-status material, ranking up there with red coral in the social scale, just below gold and silver.

These are old photos and not terribly clear, but as near as I can tell, each "bead" is shaped like a fat lentil or doughnut, with a hole through the center. Each bead seems to be made from two halves, held together by a narrow metal rim. (Imagine the halves of a sliced bagel, ready to spread cream cheese on it.)

In the overall photo above, I think the beads have just been laid out in a row, flat on the table, for the purpose of being photographed. I would expect that if the beads were assembled into a string, the way the owner probably carried them around, they would be threaded through the center holes onto a cord -- but of course if they were photographed that way, you couldn't see the scenes painted on each one very well. Supporting this, when I look at the close-up photos of each individual bead, I don't see anything that would enable them to be attached to each other by their edges.

The beads are nicely graduated in size, so there's no doubt about which order they go in, or which photos are the two sides of the same bead. Not all the paintings are readable, especially the smaller ones, though I don't know how much of this is because of worn paint and how much of it is just the way they were photographed, where certain areas are obscured by glare.

Interestingly, only the two largest beads have scenes directly relating to the Bible; all the others show saints. The largest bead has a very clear Annunciation scene on one side, and on the other a rather cryptic scene -- notes on the museum label indicate the curators weren't quite sure what it is either. It shows a robed male figure with a diamond-shaped, radiant halo, kneeling and holding both the hands of a naked woman. (It's very clearly a woman, which I presume is why their first guess at identification, the baptism of Christ, has been crossed out!) The current label suggests this is the Creation of Eve, and with a bit of imagination you can make out the sleeping figure of Adam at the bottom, with Eve emerging from his side. The sun, moon and stars in the sky also suggest this is a Creation scene.



The next largest bead has the Crucifixion on one side, and on the other, Christ the Savior and what's known in German as "Anna Selbdritt": Saint Anne holding both the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. (Saint Anne is traditionally the name of the Virgin Mary's mother, Christ's grandmother.)



(to be continued...)


Friday, September 01, 2006

Some 16th and 17th c. crosses

I have a couple of things I'd like to write about that are turning out to involve more research than I expected, so this is an "in the meantime" post.

I've been meaning to say something, anyway, about some photos I've been collecting of 16th and 17th-century crosses. These are one of my examples of how historical rosary parts can be quite different in style from anything I can find through "creative shopping" on the current market. (Adding to the angst of anyone like me who is trying to make reproductions without being able to do my own metal casting!)

If tradition is correct about the first two of these, they are definitely 16th century, as they are both supposed to have belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots, who died in 1582. The second one is from the gold filigree rosary that she is said to have carried to her execution.


Several of the other photos I've found are of crosses from the Iberian peninsula, which may be 16th or possibly 17th century. In the absence of accompanying information, crosses like this are very difficult to date -- unlike, for instance, dress styles, which changed more often and more obviously. Crosses of gold and precious stones frequently have survived the centuries mostly because of their precious-metal content, and second, because of their artistry, and previous owners often have discarded any historical information as a detail of little importance.


My sources for these photos, by the way, demonstrate that the best sources of information about historical rosaries are often books about quite different subjects: in this case, not books about religious devotion, but books about jewelry. I found the Hispanic pieces in two excellent books: Jewels in Spain, 1500-1800 by Priscilla E. Muller (1972, The Hispanic Society of America) and Five centuries of Jewelry by Leonor d'Orey (1995, Institut Portuguese de Museus, Zwemmer).

First is a Spanish cross almost identical to the one on Queen Mary's rosary above, but showing a bit more detail:


The cross below, shown front and back, is probably from Portugal. Many pieces of 16th and 17th-century jewelry, including pendants, lockets and watches, had enameled designs like these on the backs. I love the colors on this one.


The last two crosses here are very good examples of styles of decoration that I wish modern jewelers would reproduce. You'll note that none of these crosses have flared or elaborated ends at the top, bottom or ends of the arms. While that style is not unknown in the 16th century, somehow in more recent times it has become the dominant style, making it hard to find crosses with plain straight ends.


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