Friday, January 26, 2007

The jet set

(Yes, you knew there would be a truly horrid pun in this series somewhere....)

Until recently, genuine jet (the semi-precious stone) in the U.S. was fairly expensive and not too easy to find. That's changed just within the last couple of years. My usual bead supplier, Fire Mountain, now carries several sizes of jet beads at prices in the $10 range. This is about half the price of the first strand I bought (elsewhere) several years ago. They don't say where this jet is from, but China is probably a good bet.

I bought that first strand to make a copy (shown in the photo below) of the fifteenth-century jet rosary from Compostela that I saw in Ronald Lightbown's Medieval European Jewellery, one of the best sources of information on paternoster beads. You can see the original and read how I made my copy here.

Compostela replica

Of all the replicas I've made, this is probably the one that's closest to the original piece. The hollow silver beads are a different shape, none of the jet beads are carved, and I've knotted the silk thread between each bead, but otherwise the two are nearly identical, right down to the little badly-carved mother-of-pearl scallop shell on the original and its little badly-carved replica on my copy.

The new availability of jet inspired me to make two rosaries as Twelfth Night gifts this year, for historical re-enactor friends who I think will put them to good use. While they usually play the roles of (Protestant) members of Queen Elizabeth I's sixteenth-century court, on occasion they are called on to travel back in time a few more decades and take roles as followers of (Catholic) Queen Mary Tudor (Elizabeth's older half-sister).

Clearly, for these roles a black rosary is an essential accessory. The 16th-century diarist Henry Machyn records that in March, 1551:
The fifteenth day the Lady Mary rode through London unto St. John's, her place, with fifty knights and gentlemen in velvet coats and chains of gold before her, and after her, fourscore gentlemen and ladies, everyone having a pair of beads of black. She rode through Cheapside and through Smithfield -— the fifth [year] of K[ing Edward VI].

So that was the inspiration. I was also inspired by this rosary from a collection in Germany (though I have no idea whether this one is actually black, since I haven't seen it in color):

Caravaca rosary

The cross on this rosary is a Caravaca cross, named for the town of Caravaca in Spain, where it miraculously appeared (carried by two angels, as shown) in 1231. I don't know whether such crosses were popular in 16th-century England, but in the price range and size range I was looking for, it was a good candidate -- especially since Mary Tudor was half Spanish.

So here are the two rosaries I made. (Much larger views appear when you click on these images.)

Jet rosary #1 Jet-rosary #2

The black beads are 8mm and 12mm jet. Both crosses are from my old friends Rosary Workshop -- the one on the right is probably from a 19th century source, but I decided that for this project, big and "plausible" were the main things I considered.

Here, as in several rosaries I've made, I find ordinary size 11 seed beads very useful for holding the knots between the larger beads. (At some point I want to write more about the little beads that sometimes appear between larger ones -- the Germans delightfully call them "Zwischenperlen" -- but for now, I'll just say that they do appear in historical rosaries.) In this case, due to the fact that I'm limited to whatever kinds of beads modern merchants decide to sell, I'm faced with beads with holes large enough that they will slide right over a knot I tie in the thread they are strung on. The seed beads have smaller holes, so if I put a seed bead between two larger beads, the knot won't go through the hole in the seed bead, and the seed bead won't go through the hole in the larger bead. So if the string breaks, not all the beads will go flying -- just a few.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

When you have Jet....

West Side Story's song about gang life with the Jets says, "When you're a Jet, you're the swingin'est thing; little boy, you're a man; little man, you're a king..."

We can't know, of course, whether jet (the semi-precious stone) had quite this kind of effect on men (or women) in the Renaissance, but it certainly does seem to be regarded as a precious substance and associated with the rich and famous.

As with the distinctive red that represents coral, once you start noticing rosary beads of jet, they are suddenly everywhere in period portraits and paintings. Or at least, there are a lot of black beads in evidence. Some of them may have been a black agate, or black glass, of course; and the less wealthy could have beads of wood or bone dyed black. But if the beads are rich and ostentatious, jet is a good candidate for what they are supposed to be.

For instance, this is a portrait of the late 1520s of someone in the Vom Rhein family, usually thought to be Philipp vom Rhein zum Mohren (1484-1537). It's attributed to Conrad Faber von Creuznach and is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.


A closeup view:

Jet is actually a variety of coal, and I was a bit surprised (since I know a thing or two about geology) to find out where it stands in the coal "spectrum." Coal is basically organic matter, most often wood, that has been deposited in geological sediments, and then compressed and altered by heat and the weight of more sediments on top. If it's only been altered a little, the coal is soft and brown. The other end of the spectrum is anthracite, coal that has been so compressed and heated that it's become essentially pure carbon and intensely black. As it turns out, the jet used in beads is lignite, a stage somewhere between the two. While anthracite is harder and shinier, apparently it's too brittle to make good beads.

Jet is fairly soft for a gemstone, between 2 and 4 on the Mohs mineral hardness scale, so it can easily be scratched by a knife or coin, sometimes even by a fingernail. Like amber, it is also warm to the touch, and very lightweight, which is a convenient way to tell it from some of its imitations. (Glass and agate are cold to the touch and much heavier.) Good quality jet is hard enough to take a good polish; softer jet tends to be dull.

Here's another black rosary, which I think is also likely to be jet. This is a detail of Agnolo Bronzino's "Portrait of a Lady with a Puppy" (painted in the early 1530s).

Bronzino dog

Jet seems to have been a favorite decorative material all the way back to prehistoric times, and the Romans valued it highly, as did native Americans in the southwest. The first European source was in Turkey, near a river called Gagat (various spellings) from which the word "jet" is supposed to be derived. Jet is also found in Spain, in China, and most famously in Whitby, England, which has a particularly tough, hard variety of jet that is highly valued. (And since very few people are still mining jet there, about the only true Whitby jet on the market is antique, and priced accordingly.)

On the "prestige scale" of rosary materials, as I mentioned when I wrote about it awhile back in Gauds and Gaudier, jet seems to rank about the same as amber -- above wood, glass, and agate, and below rock crystal, silver and gold.

When I wrote that article, I didn't have any examples that let me judge whether jet was higher or lower in status than coral -- that is, assuming my "rule of thumb" holds true that gauds are almost always of a higher-status material. Now, I wonder whether the beads the Infant Jesus is playing with in Black is the True Colorare supposed to represent jet beads with coral markers -- which would answer the question... at least until I run into the next counter-example!)

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Black is the true color...

Of course the classic song begins Black, black, black is the color of my true love's hair... However, as my mother used to comment, the hairdresser's version of this ought rather to be Black is the true color of my love's hair.

And in this case, black is (apparently) the true color of the rosary I want to discuss.

I had quite a surprise the other day when I finally found a color version of a portrait of the Virgin and Child with rosary beads that I'd been looking for for years. One of the first historical rosaries I made was copied from this picture, which I found in Eithne Wilkins' The Rose-Garden Game.

Fossano in Rijksmuseum, black and white

Thanks to the magic of online searches, and the increasing efforts of museums to put their collections online, all I had to do was to look twice at the photo description, notice that the original painting is in the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands, go to the Rijksmuseum website, and plug in the name of the painter. And voila! (At least, if you have an up-to-date web browser...)

Fossano in Rijksmuseum

Now it was quite a surprise to me to see the actual color of these beads. In the black and white photo, of course, they are black and white. But here's a slightly closer view, showing that the beads actually do appear to be black.

Fossano in Rijksmuseum detail

This is surprising because I have seen quite a few photos of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus with (highly anachronistic) rosary beads. In many cases, like this one, the infant is playing with the beads, as babies love to do. But at least ten out of the 15 paintings of this subject that I have in my file folder have red beads, presumably intended to represent coral. (There are a few more where I only have a black and white photo and can't tell what color they are.) I had begun to think that this might be a general rule.

I was further thrown off track in my interpretation of the black-and-white version by the existence of this very similar portrait, of the same subject and by the same painter, which is in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. These beads definitely are red.

Fossano in National Gallery DC

The painter, by the way, is not one of the easier artists to find. His name is Ambrogio Stefani da Fossano (c. 1450-1523), but he is also known as Il Borgognone or Bergognone ("the Burgundian") and more often indexed that way.

Now the Rijksmuseum portrait is online at a fairly low resolution, and I'd want to double-check the original to see if the beads really are black, and also to determine the color of the gauds (marker beads). In the color version they appear to be red, but in the black and white version, they look lighter, and perhaps more like clear glass or rock crystal. Color distortion is certainly a possibility. But all the same, I was surprised to see the Infant Jesus with beads of such an unusual color.

Red may, indeed, be the dominant color of rosary beads in Virgin and Child portraits, and the Rijksmuseum portrait may be an exception. Red coral beads would make sense in a couple of ways: red coral was traditionally given to children as a good-luck charm and ward against the "evil eye," and it's also an expensive, luxury material suitable for exalted beings like the Virgin Mary.

So far I have only looked at a few hundred paintings, not the multiple thousands that an expert would have seen -- but then, I've only been researching this subject for about five years. I'll be interested to see whether the trends I think I see here continue when I've done more research.

More black beads to follow...

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Friday, January 12, 2007

More crystal gazing

a short note

I'm always pleased when another example turns up of an unusual type of rosary -- especially when it's something I've spotted, analyzed, and worked out an explanation for myself (and most especially when it turns out I was right!).

This happened recently when someone mentioned to me that there was a beautiful rock crystal rosary on display as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum's recent exhibition, "At Home in Renaissance Italy."

There was indeed, and here's a picture, with a link to the relevant page of the exhibit's website:


This rosary is from 16th-century Italy, and is in the Museo Civico d'Arte Antica e Palazzo Madama, Turin. The brief description on the V&A's page says it is made from rock crystal, painted and gilded, with pearls and gilded silver mounts.

The person who mentioned it to me (thanks, Aurelia!) said she'd found it fascinating because each spherical bead is made from two halves, each of which had images painted on the inside.


This may -- I hope it does -- remind you of my series of posts called "Crystal Gazing" awhile back (listed below). That appeared to be exactly how those beads were constructed, but the photos showed each bead separately, laid flat, so I was able to identify most of the images.

You can't see images very well in this Turin example, just bits of color, but it gives you an idea of how the Marburg photos might look if we could see that one in color too. Wow. I'd love to see details.

It's a bit odd the way it's currently assembled. First of all, it's strung on metal chain, and I doubt this was the original method, which means it's been re-strung. No surprise there: most surviving rosaries have. Most rosaries made with chain are not really strung on the chain, but instead have a wire link through each bead with a loop on each end, which hooks into the next link, making the bead itself part of the chain. This chain, however, looks more as if the beads are simply strung onto it like a thread.

The beads are similar enough to each other that it's likely they all came from the same original, and the cross too looks likely to be from the same source, especially if (as it seems to be) it's been painted in the same way as the beads. However, there's a good possibility the beads are not in their original position or arrangement. The images might give us some hints, if we could identify them. Also, the thirteen beads seen here may or may not be the original number, since many historical pieces have lost some of their parts.

When I first saw a set of beads with 10 in a circle like this, I was certain it was a modern construction, since I haven't seen this sort of thing pictured in historical paintings or diagrams. Most times when you see ten beads, especially large ones, they are in a straight string (called in German a Zehner -- see Counting to Ten). But recently I've seen several more examples, which makes me wonder if this might be a form that dates back further than I thought. More evidence one way or another might be nice.

The arrangement where the loop joins also looks peculiar. My guess is that this may be the remains of a "credo cross," originally five beads arranged as a cross, one having been lost. Whether this was part of the original rosary or whether it's been added as part of the process of reconstructing something plausible, who can say.

As ever, this leaves me itching to see this rosary in person and take lots of well-lit close-up photos to study. Legend has it that all historical costumers wish for the mythical book called "Hey, Lady -- Turn Around!" that shows the back and side views of all the costumes worn in portraits, so we can see exactly how they're constructed. Me, I want to see a mythical book on other artifacts, called, "Hey -- Turn It Over!"

previous posts on a similar rosary:

Crystal Gazing I
Crystal Gazing II
Crystal Gazing III