Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The place of the skull

I figure Hallowe'en is a good day to talk about skulls. I did quite a series of posts about rosaries and skulls last year -- you can look them up in the September and October 2005 archives if you're interested. But I promise just the one post this time.

I find that I do a certain amount of debunking of myths on this blog, and I've run across one myth about skulls that I'd like to mention. Every so often someone on eBay discovers that the rosary they have to sell has a crucifix with a skull at the base, like this one:

Not uncommonly, the seller gets very excited because they think this is a rare thing or an indication of great age -- after all, they have never seen one like this. They may also think it's an indication that the rosary was owned by a priest or nun, since the idea of nuns meditating on skulls, graves, etc. (and the imminence of death) has lingered from Victorian "nun horror" literature right up to the present.

(There's a whole genre of Victorian horror literature, with titles like "The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk," about torture, sex, and slavery supposedly going on in convents. The books are generally so bad they're laughable, though occasionally one runs across an uninformed reader who actually believes they're true.)

At any rate, crucifixes that show a skull at the base are actually not all that rare, and neither are they confined to rosaries made for nuns. I think they're somewhat more common in Hispanic cultures now, but it's something that was quite fashionable in many parts of Europe during the Renaissance. As I went into some detail last year about the popularity of skull imagery in general, I won't repeat myself here, but they show up in a surprising number of places.

A skull at the base of a crucifix, however, bears a special message. This is based on a piece of common European folklore about the Crucifixion. Legend says that the place where Adam died and was buried in the Garden of Eden later became the hill where Christ was crucified. (Modern geographers think that if there were actual places that inspired the Garden of Eden, they were elsewhere, but thus goes the legend.)

Further, according to the legend, the Cross on which Jesus was crucified was actually made from the wood of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden (therefore, presumably, an apple tree, if you think the fruit Adam and Eve ate was an apple).

So a skull at the base of the Crucifix represents the skull of Adam. Since Jesus, who redeemed humanity, is sometimes seen as the "new Adam" -- reversing the Fall, the Redemption gave humanity a fresh start of sorts -- it's entirely appropriate to pair him with the "old Adam" in this way.

And in case anyone didn't learn this in Sunday School, the name of the hill, Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, actually does mean "place of the skull."

There's a very clear skull and crossbones is at the foot of this gold enameled cross from the 16th or early 17th, which I think I've referred to on this blog before:


I must admit that the accidents of painting and molding make this skull look rather like a walrus, close up. But as you'll see below, the skulls -- in much the same way as angels carved on gravestones -- can become simpler, more stylized and eventually quite abstract looking. In the crucifix below, the jaws of the skull are simply represented by three white dots, standing for "teeth":


And here, the "skull" has become just a roundish flat piece of metal with a few slashes cut into it:


You can see a bit more detail on some similar pieces at the Rosary Workshop Museum page on older European crucifixes.

Rosary Workshop, by the way, has added a lot more material and done considerably more editing on their "museum" site in the last couple of years, making it much more solid and better documented. I do still see minor typos on a fairly regular basis, and some incorrect information that has not yet been checked or removed (such as the unfortunate"knock on wood" story -- language historians point out that it contradicts a number of known facts). But on the whole it's a great improvement.

Posts in this series:

Death's head devotions
Skully bits
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


Friday, October 27, 2006

Woodcarver at work

One thing I did not expect about having a fairly prominent website about rosary history is that I now get occasional requests by e-mail -- usually to help identify or date someone's old rosary, though most of the people who ask have rosaries from sometime in the 19th or 20th century, when I can't be of much help.

Once in a while I get something different. Last spring I got an inquiry from Dennis Collier, an artist who had been commissioned to carve a rosary from olive wood: himself a practicing Buddhist, he had no idea what a Catholic rosary should look like, how many beads it should have, or where to start. I sent him some basic information, for which he was very grateful.

Checking back recently, he's finished the project, and now has it up on his website. There is a wonderfully carved crucifix backed with a medallion, a rosary of fairly large plain beads, and a rosary case for the whole thing, made from a section of the trunk of the olive tree.

Copyright 2006 Dennis O. Collier

I hadn't heard a lot of details when he first asked, so I was interested to hear more about where the commission had come from and what he had been asked to do.

The initial request came from Katie Burchfield, a woman from Georgia who has reported visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and who feels she has been directed to present a rosary portraying her vision to Pope Benedict XVI. It's an interesting story: she was originally a Southern Baptist before her visions began, but has now converted to Catholicism, and a number of Catholic sources have been very interested in her experiences.

As Dennis Collier explains, her central vision has been of Jesus as the "bridegroom." The image she requested includes a crowned, risen Christ, astride a globe, with a sash emblazoned with the motto IHS and a star of David, and robes with the alpha and omega symbols on each sleeve. Dennis has done a lovely job of translating this into wood.

Copyright 2006 Dennis O. Collier Copyright 2006 Dennis O. Collier

As with the overwhelming majority of modern reports of visions and miracles, official Catholic sources are politely silent on whether Katie's visions are considered "true" experiences of the supernatural. Many people over the centuries have reported such experiences, and modern society doesn't really have a conceptual framework into which such things easily fit. My own interest in this case is because I see it as a living example of a common phenomenon in the history of religion: one person's experience, being translated into a new image of devotion. Certainly such things now receive far wider public exposure than in the days before mass media and the Internet, but I don't think the phenomenon itself has changed much.


Friday, October 06, 2006

More 16th c crosses

part 2

I collected some photos in a previous post that I keep around as a guide to what 16th and 17th-century crosses generally look like. Those were relatively plain ones; here are some of the fancier ones.

One type that's represented in quite a few museum collections is a cross made primarily to show off inset jewels: diamonds in the one on the left below, amethysts on the right. Some have solid backs, others have open-backed settings so that light can pass through the jewels. This is part of an overall trend in jewelry, beginning in the early 17th century and extending into the 18th and 19th, to emphasize the stones themselves, at the expense of the settings. Many medieval and Renaissance jewels have elaborate, heavily enameled settings around their jewels, sometimes with additional jewels, pearls or beads set in them. By the eighteenth century, brooches are often so thickly set with jewels that the settings are hidden, and you can't always even tell whether they're gold or silver without turning them over.


The crosses below show a bit more of the settings than the ones above. The one on the left is Spanish and set with emeralds (the original is in Barcelona, but I couldn't find a color photo).

Another thing to notice here, and in the previous post, is how many of the crosses have pendant pearls, either just at the foot of the cross, or from both the foot and the side arms. These pendent pearls are very characteristic of a lot of 16th-century jewelry; you see them on jewels shaped like ships, dolphins, castles and so forth. Even when the pearls have not survived, you can sometimes see attachment loops where they would have hung.


More elaborate again is the following, shown front and back, which has lots of enameled curlicues around the edges. The back has an elaborate pattern in enamels -- undoubtedly in color, again I couldn't find a color photo of this one, but compare it to the last one in the previous post.


I find it very helpful to look at actual examples like this when going shopping for suitable crosses to use for replicas (even though I often can't find any!). I find that, with time and experience, my eye for what period crosses actually look like does get better. And in particular, better at discriminating between crosses that actually do come from the Renaissance, and the crosses so many suppliers put out that are called "Medieval" or "Renaissance" but actually look nothing like them. Only the best of the 19th century fakers, such as Reinhold Vasters, seem to have studied the real Renaissance closely enough to produce something that's even slightly convincing.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Poly play

It's a bit of a puzzle to me, but despite the wild proliferation of bead crafts as a modern hobby, few of the newer types of beads currently in fashion seem to make it into the rosary market. Among the glass beads especially, round faceted beads are overwhelmingly dominant in rosaries, to the extent that just about any other shape is likely to be described as "rare", "unusual", or "unique" (overused as these terms are on eBay).

The bead catalogs, by contrast, are full of flower shaped beads, cubes, flat diamonds strung corner to corner, teardrops, crescent moons, twists, sea shells and hearts. I'll keep an eye out for rosaries made from these, but while I've seen sea shells and hearts, the others seem to be few and far between.

More to the point at the moment, I do see the occasional artisan bringing into the rosary market something else quite modern: poly clay. If you're not familiar with this stuff, Sculpey and Fimo are two major brands, and it's available in craft stores. It's a very pliable and versatile clay-like material, and when baked in an ordinary oven, becomes quite hard and permanent.

Craftspeople love the stuff because it makes it possible to easily and quickly imitate, with ordinary home equipment, a great many things that glassmakers do with much more effort and difficulty, including cane and mosaic techniques. People go quite wild with poly clay, and at times produce some things that I personally think are extremely ugly -- but on the other hand, I've also seen many that were interesting, lovely, or both. Poly clay can be made into quite convincing imitations of Japanese lacquer work, carved wood or ivory, porcelain, semi-precious stones, and many other natural materials, or it can sport colors and textures due to no inspiration but pure art -- or perhaps, science fiction!

One particular artist, whose eBay ID is Capone31, has given me permission to show and write about some of her poly-clay creations.

Here are a couple of pieces typical of her work from a year or two ago:



She's also been able to incorporate bits of foil into some of her beads, imitating a Japanese technique called "mokume-gane." Here's one of those rosaries:



As you can see, the finished beads are polished smooth and given a protective coating. They look remarkably glass-like, in fact, and she reports that they are very sturdy in use and don't break.

More recently, she's been producing a series of rosaries that use poly clay just for the marker beads. This is quite understandable, as it's very labor-intensive. A lot of work already goes into these rosaries because they are made with wrapped loops, which take significantly more time to make, but are much more durable. I picked this one to show because it's very sophisticated in its clay technique:



Then there is the stuff that's a bit more "out there" and fun. Because the clay is resistant to breaking once it's baked, it's possible to make a reasonably sturdy rosary that looks like this (which is in honor of St. Therese of Lisieux):

Capone31 1a_1_b

Admittedly, this is not the sort of thing you'd want to carry around in your pocket, and it probably wouldn't stand up too well to that kind of wear and tear either. The artist admits she was thinking more that someone might display this sort of thing on a wall or table as religious art. "Wall rosaries" are something I've discussed before on this blog, in fact, and while they are not as popular as they were 50 years ago, some people really like them.

Perhaps the market for rosaries is conservative now because a lot of people see the rosary prayer itself as something old-fashioned or out of date. Rosaries may be seen as something you buy for your grandmother, rather than for yourself, so while historical rosaries tend to follow the fashions in jewelry of the time they were made, right now rosaries seem to be made and sold in fashions more typical of the 1950s.

On the other hand, the rosary is not dead by any means. The high school students who have made rosaries in art class at the school where I work have been really interested in what they were doing and how their finished rosaries would be used. A number of their rosaries were made with touches of humor and decidedly modern beads. October is traditionally "rosary month", and it's interesting to see that this 500-year-old tradition is still alive and well.