Monday, February 26, 2007

Protestants and the rosary

I grew up Protestant in the Northeastern U.S., in an area with many Irish and Italian families, so most of my playmates when I was in elementary school were Catholic. This was somewhat (ahem!) before Vatican II, and both Protestant and Catholic kids were taught by their parents (and sometimes even in Sunday School) to regard the other with suspicion, if not downright hostility. My Catholic playmates, for instance, said they were told they would spend eternity in Hell if they (literally!) so much as set foot inside a Protestant church building.

Boy, have things changed. While there are still plenty of Protestants who believe the Roman church is the Scarlet Woman of Babylon, for the most part Catholics and Protestants now acknowledge each other as fellow Christians, are often fairly relaxed about attending each other's worship services, and I suspect that informal, unofficial sharing of Communion is more common than the authorities on both sides would like to think. There are still plenty of incompatibilities (women priests, to name one) but I don't see that degree of almost superstitious mistrust of the "other" any more.

The status of the Virgin Mary is a point of difference between Catholics and Protestants, of course, and that's one of the reasons Protestants tend to be rather wary of the rosary. Unfortunately, I think people brought up Catholic often demonstrate how little they understand about their "separated brethren" when they blithely suggest that Protestants can pray the rosary too.


There are four main points I can think of about the rosary that give many Protestants problems. Briefly they are (from the Protestant point of view):
(1) What about Jesus's prohibition of "vain repetitions" in prayer?
(2) Does the Rosary give Mary too much honor?
(3) Do saints actually hear the prayers of living people?
(4) Is it legitimate to ask saints for favor?

I should make it clear here that when I say "Protestants" in this discussion, I am not including modern Anglicans or Episcopalians. There are certainly Anglicans who do say the rosary, either in the same form common to Roman Catholics or some other form, such as the modern Anglican rosary (which I still want to write about sometime). But what Americans usually call "mainstream" Protestants (Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.), and essentially all of the more evangelical and conservative Protestants, are generally opposed to the rosary as a Roman practice, and that's who I'm referring to here.

As I've said, Catholics do sometimes cheerfully assert that Protestants, too, can "honor" the Virgin Mary and pray the rosary. But I've noticed that somehow, all the Catholic stories that circulate about Protestants praying the rosary tend to end with the story's Protestant becoming a Catholic. If those are the only stories you ever hear, the (inadvertent) message is "If you start praying the rosay, you'll become Catholic" -- as though the rosary were the first step down a slippery slope!

I noticed this on Rosary Workshop's "Why pray the rosary?" page and mentioned it to the website's owner, Margot Carter-Blair -- who shared my amusement, once I'd pointed it out. Margot is now looking for some good stories about Protestants praying the rosary who stay Protestant.

Hmmm. Looks like this is the start of another series of articles....


The first challenge Protestants frequently offer is Matthew chapter 6, verse 7, where Jesus says (in the original King James 1611 spelling): "But when yee pray, use not vaine repetitions, as the heathen doe. For they thinke that they shall be heard for their much speaking."

This verse has had various English translations. Wycliffe's version from around 1400 says: "But in preiyng nyle yee speke myche, as hethene men doon, for thei gessen that thei ben herd in her myche speche." ("But in praying, nil [do not] ye speak much, as heathen men do, for they think that they are heard in their much speech.")

The Bishop's Bible (1568) says, amusingly, "But when ye pray, babble not much, as the heathen do. For they thynke that they shalbe heard, for theyr much bablinges sake."

One modern version puts it: "And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words." In all the versions the next verse says "Therefore be not lyke them, for your father knoweth, what thynges ye haue nede of, before ye aske of hym."

The King James version, however, is so entrenched in the English language that "vain repetitions" is the actual phrase the debate tends to focus on. Protestants generally assert that any repetition of the same prayer over and over must be "vain" by definition, since God really only needs to be asked once, and repeating the same words doesn't add anything.

The usual (rather feeble) Catholic defense is to argue that Christ didn't mean to prohibit all repetition but only vain repetition -- which is a very incomplete answer, since it leaves open the question of how you tell whether it's vain or not.

I think there's a point here, though: saying the same thing over and over doesn't necessarily mean it's less sincere. Parents and children, husbands and wives tell each other "I love you" over and over, and it doesn't seem to mean any less to them for being repeated.

Protestants generally don't see that their own argument isn't completely consistent. There may be no particular virtue in repeating the same prayer over again, but Protestants will cheerfully pray the "Our Father..." weekly and daily throughout their lives anyway. Many Protestants are taught that "true" prayer is spontaneous and from the heart, expressed in one's own words or wordless desires -- but if that were literally followed at all times, we'd all be praying like Quakers, who only pray as they feel "inspired" to do so. But in fact, most Protestant worship services do include standard, pre-written prayers in which everyone is expected to join. I was brought up, for instance, saying one that begins "Almighty and merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep...." every Sunday without fail.

I think both sides would admit that the idea of saying a prayer 10 or 100 or some other "round number" of times is something humans have dreamed up for our own satisfaction, not something God particularly cares about. (100 is only a round number if you're using a base-10 number system, anyway!) So perhaps the question that needs to be addressed is whether or not it's a good thing to allow our human preferences for certain numbers to affect our prayers this way. I can certainly see that reasonable adults could have different opinions on this.

posts in this series:

Part I: Protestants and the Rosary
Part II: Worship, honor, and the Virgin Mary
Part III: Addressing saints
Part IV: Can Protestants hail Mary?


Saturday, February 17, 2007

A, B, C, D, E, F, G....

A whim of fashion has suddenly made alphabet beads very popular in the last few years. You can now get cube-shaped beads with any letter from A to Z -- and sometimes more, including hearts, stars, crosses and punctuation marks. Sterling silver cubes are quite popular, but every bead medium from gold to glass to {shudder} plastic is represented.

It didn't take long for rosary makers to start playing with the possibilities. One of the earliest rosaries I saw on eBay with alphabet beads was this one, which spells "Santa Maria" (conveniently, ten letters) in every decade.

Santa Maria rosary

Imagination soon suggested other ways to use the alphabet. You can now get a rosary that spells out your name in full, which certainly makes it unmistakably yours. In earlier and perhaps more modest times, you'd have had your name more subtly engraved on the back of the crucifix.

Instantly popular, too, was the idea of a rosary with the names of family members, usually one name per decade. You generally can't sell this sort of thing on eBay, because it needs to be customized to the buyer. But there are plenty of people willing to make one for you.

More creative rosary makers have branched out into other messages. You can now buy a rosary spelling out the name of your favorite saint, or citing your favorite Bible passage ("JOHN+3+16"). You can give your parish priest a rosary that spells out "Father Jerome" or your parents an anniversary rosary with their names and the words "50 years." I've also seen rosaries customized with just initials, often on the three central beads of the short pendant between the loop of a modern rosary and the cross.

Clearly, once you receive a rosary like this, you are stuck with it forever, and if you don't like it your only recourse is to stick it in a drawer. You can't give it away.

And of course I'm not suggesting anything of the sort. Many of these rosaries are quite beautiful and well made, and a tangible reminder to pray for your nearest and dearest is something many people like to have.


I was interested to find, when I started tracking rosary sales on eBay, that there is a definite peak season for giving rosaries as gifts. That peak is not Christmas, as one might expect, although there is certainly an upsurge in sales then. Nor is it Easter or Valentine's Day, which might also have some logic behind them. The big holiday for rosary gifts is Mother's Day.

I sometimes wonder -- rather wryly at times -- whether some religious groups' emphasis on an exclusively masculine clergy is an intentional counterbalance. At least since the 19th century, in European cultures if not elsewhere, women have been regarded as the more "spiritual" sex, or at least have felt more free to display religious fervor in public. I certainly don't think men are any less fervent or numerous in their devotion. But in a culture where men don't cry in public and don't ask for directions when they get lost, you probably won't see a lot of them praying the rosary in public either.

Women in traditional families also seem to function as the "social secretary" or the one who keeps in touch with everyone. This may well explain the decidedly feminine slant I've seen to the alphabet rosaries offered for sale -- especially those with family names. Pastel colors, iridescent glass beads, and crosses decorated with flowers, leaves and curlicues abound.


I've strayed rather far from the alphabet here, into musings on the social roles of women and men. But I think there is a connection, if only this: rosary beads reflect the times in which they are made, and especially, the styles of contemporary jewelry. This broadens our field as rosary researchers considerably. Where historical data about rosaries is lacking, books on period jewelry can provide valuable insight, and it's not uncommon for a rosary or two to appear along with the book's rings, bracelets and other jewelry. Equally, comparing the style of rosaries to that of jewelry can give us insight into what the rosary means to those who choose, wear, and pray it.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Of crosses, bells and pigs

(I promise this is my last post about Twelfth Night this year!)

One of the best gifts anyone gave me this Twelfth Night was a little gold cross. It was the gift of a friend to whom it was personally meaningful, and who thought I would likely appreciate both the cross and the meaning. I do.


This is a type of cross called a Tau cross, shaped like a capital T (Tau in Greek). It's a little over an inch high, and hollow. On the front it has a representation of the Holy Trinity (you can see God on his Throne and Christ on the Cross -- and supposedly a dove at God's right hand, though I can't make it out). On the back is the Virgin and Child. The engraving is done mostly in short, angled strokes, and there are distinctive, cross-hatched triangular "flowers" in the corners.

The more I looked at this cross, the more intrigued I became, because it looked familiar. I was sure I'd seen it before. So I started pulling books off my shelf and looking for pictures. My hunch was that this was one of the handful of named medieval crosses from England: there are several, of which some have descended through families and others have been found in archaeological contexts.

Sure enough, I found a tau cross with a name -- the Winteringham Cross. After considerable hunting, I discovered I did have a photo, in my copy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York's Mirror of the Medieval World. Here it is:

Winteringham original

Clearly it's a match.

The Winteringham Cross was found by an amateur archaeologist with a metal detector, near Winteringham in north Lincolnshire, and was acquired by the Met in 1990. I was able to find out a good deal more about it from a paper published in 1992 in the Metropolitan Museum Bulletin, accessible in libraries or through academic paper sources like JSTOR (if you have access to that).

The paper, written by the curator of the Cloisters medieval collection, compares this cross with other medieval crosses, such as the Clare cross, the Matlaske and Bridlingham crosses, and another one found in Bath. It's worth looking at as an example of how artifacts like this are studied.

Metal detecting is far from ideal from an archeological point of view, since items found this way are seldom dug up with careful attention to soil layers, associated pottery shards, color changes in nearby soil, and other clues archaeologists are trained to look for. These can often be very helpful in determining an object's date and context. On the other hand, there are no doubt plenty of medieval objects that fell out of someone's pocket in the Middle Ages and don't have much context anyway.

One way to make at least an educated guess at the date of such objects is to look at the artistic style. For paintings, this has been studied by art historians in intensive detail, such that they can often tell just by style who painted something. In this case, there are similar motifs, including the cross-hatched flowers, on two English rings, one associated with Wytelsey, archbishop of Canterbury. These suggest a date for the Winteringham cross of around 1485. (Of course, dating by style assumes you do have a reliable date for at least one object you're comparing a new one with.)

Another helpful clue to an object's meaning is iconography, that is, what people or motifs are shown on it. Since we often have documentary evidence of when and where certain stories or things became common, sometimes this provides clues to possible dates or origins for a displaced object, as well. Here's where the bells and pigs come in.

In this case, while tau crosses are associated with St. Francis of Assisi, the story of Moses, the apostles Philip and Matthew, and Christian stories about the Passover, what drew the author's attention in particular was its association with St. Anthony Abbot. This St. Anthony was a fourth-century Egyptian hermit, one of the "Desert Fathers" of the early church. A Tau-shaped staff was an early symbol of bishops and other authority figures, an earlier symbol in fact than the later curly-headed crozier or shepherd's crook. There are several surviving bishops' staffs with this shape and it's still common in the Eastern church. It is also associated with Egypt, and its crutch-like shape may relate to the fact that St. Anthony is supposed to have lived a very long life.

Saint Anthony is said to have founded a hospital in Egypt, and an order of canons, the Hospitalers of Saint Anthony (different from the more familiar Hospitalers of St. John in Palestine), was established in Paris around the beginning of the 13th century. By mid-century they had hospitals in London and York.

To raise funds for the hospital, they went around town ringing bells to announce their presence, rather like a medieval version of the Salvation Army. They also sold little Tau crosses and bells of bronze or lead, similar to the pilgrim tokens sold by shrines to those who came to visit.

Associations of lay supporters, like the modern "Friends of..." associations, quickly sprang up, and a number of paintings such as this and this show people wearing a collar or chain with a Tau cross with a bell suspended from it. The Winteringham cross also has a hole at the bottom, which may have held an attachment loop, suggesting a bell may have hung from it originally. (But as you can see, that's speculation rather than evidence.)

The pig often shown with St. Anthony may have originally symbolized the evil spirits with which he struggled in the desert. But the Antonine canons in London obtained the privilege of letting their pigs run free in the streets, foraging on whatever food they could find. They were identified as "St. Anthony's pigs" by bells tied around their necks, and it was considered an act of charity to feed them.

Another theory about the pig is that it's associated with St. Anthony because he was the saint invoked against a degenerative disease that resulted in gangrene and the amputation of arms and legs. One theory is that this disease was erysipelas, a bacterial infection of deep skin and fat tissues once thought to be associated with pigs. In fact, it was more likely ergotism, also called St. Anthony's fire. This is now known to result from eating bread made from rye grain infected with the ergot fungus. It causes impaired circulation in hands, feet, arms and legs, and in the Middle Ages its cause was not known, and there was no treatment for it except amputation.

The paper goes on at some length about this association, also suggested by a gold Tau cross found in Bath, which is engraved with a figure of St. Anthony holding a bell and accompanied by a pig. The author suggests that because the Winteringham cross is a Tau cross and hollow, it may have contained either saints' relics or protective herbs against St. Anthony's fire.

That's certainly possible, but nothing about the Winteringham cross supports it specifically. Crosses are often hollow, Tau crosses not necessarily more often than any other type. Nothing about the images shown on the Winteringham cross suggests St. Anthony. He was certainly a popular saint, and perhaps would have been the most common to associate with a Tau cross in the late Middle Ages. But it's important to be clear how much of this reasoning is from actual evidence and how much is speculation.

I wouldn't be so arrogant as to suggest that my interpretation is necessarily any better than that of a museum curator who probably has ten times my education and background in the subject. But my point is that museum curators also engage in guesswork and speculation. Dates, identifications, and meanings are not set in stone just because they are on a museum label. If we're interested in something, we have a responsibility to gather the evidence and think for ourselves.

The cross is something I'm delighted to have. It's an excellent reproduction of a piece with a lot of history behind it, and being the gift of a friend makes it even more valuable. I don't think my friend knew its full history and significance, but a gift that leads me to new discoveries is a gift indeed.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

It isn't easy, bea(d)ing green...

I'm sure I've already bored everyone with my rhapsodizing about Twelfth Night, but I'm not quite done yet. What can I say: it was a big event, with everyone dressed in their best medieval clothing, the perfect opportunity to show off rosaries.

I had new clothes for the occasion, and took the opportunity to make up a rosary for which I'd had most of the parts for awhile. Except for the materials, it's a reasonably close copy of an original from about 1600 which is now in the Schatzkammer (Treasure House) of the Residenz Museum in München (Munich). I haven't seen this one in person yet; the one time I was in München was thirty years ago, before I was interested in such things. I do plan to go back.

Emerald rosary, ca. 1600

I saw the photo of this in Eithne Wilkins' 1969 book The Rose-Garden Game, of which I published a review here a couple of years ago. It's not quite as bad a book about rosaries as I used to think: the author does have some interesting and soundly factual information in there. The trouble is, you can only tell which is the good stuff and which is not if you've already read several other books.

Emerald rosary, detail

The original piece is one of those incredible objects of art that makes you stand there with your mouth hanging open once you realize what it really is. The gauds (marker beads) are enameled gold, and the description says they are set with tiny diamonds, though those aren't visible in the picture. The spacers between beads, and the bead caps on the cross, are also gold. With the exception of one piece, the entire rest of the rosary is composed of emeralds. Yes: I said emeralds -- real, solid emeralds, at least 6 millimeters in diameter. The only exception is the oval-shaped pendant, which is a "doublet," a sort of sandwich of emerald and glass that jewelers put together to make the gem look bigger than it actually is.

Emerald rosary, cross

Wilkins says the original is German, from around 1600, but I wonder. By far the biggest source of emeralds around that time was in the New World, and Spain owned most of that. It's certainly possible this rosary could have been designed and assembled in Germany, but it could be Spanish, which would account for the relatively large amount of gold used. There were plenty of wealthy people outside Spain, of course, but it would be interesting for a gemologist to examine the emeralds to see where they're from.

The sheer monetary value of this thing is astounding. We hear about wealthy English nobles wearing "the price of an estate" on their elaborately embellished sleeves; this rosary must have been worth the price of a good-sized castle and its entire estate, at least. It's probably worth that much today, too.

However. My excuse for making a copy was the sheer glitz of it all. It's still a spectacular piece of jewelry even though mine is all glass, and the "gold" is gold-colored base metal. The pendant, I bought from a company that sells chandelier parts. (They have good prices and fast shipment, by the way.)

Emerald rosary replica

I wanted something a little special for the Ave beads, and wound up buying hand-made beads from Barefoot Beads, who are also nice folks and gave me good service. I explained my project and asked if they could send me beads that might be slightly irregular and not all the same color, and that's what they did. (The original emerald beads aren't all the same color either.) The one thing they couldn't do was to drill a second hole through one bead so I could use it for the center of the cross, but the jeweler I take all my "weird" projects to was happy to do it.

Emerald replica, detail

Making the cross was a bit challenging. I did have that center bead, with two holes drilled through it at right angles to each other. I wanted to construct the cross the way I think the original was constructed, with the silk thread that holds the beads coming down through the top bead, out to the sides to take in the "horizontal arm" beads, through the bottom bead to hold the pendant, and then back up through the cross.

Emerald replica, cross

This involves making the thread turn a right angle, twice, in the space inside a bead where there's very little room to maneuver (and there is no way you can get your fingers in there). I was quite pleased with my own cleverness when I figured out how to make it work.

I thought of trying to find a tiny hook to catch the thread, but in the end I wound up using two twisted-wire beading needles. I buy steel ones, which are sold for bead weaving, because they're a little stiffer and easier to handle than brass ones.

What I did was to insert the eye of an empty needle through the hole I wanted the thread to come out of. I then threaded the other needle, and pushed it into the hole that was at right angles to the empty needle. I gave a tug on the empty needle, and if it wouldn't move, I knew I had succeeded in putting the second needle through the first needle's eye.

Then all I had to do was to run the second needle completely through the bead, and I could pull up on the first needle to make the thread turn a right angle and come out the side hole. I did the same thing when I needed to divert the thread for the second horizontal arm, and this was even better, because using an eyed needle meant I could just push the thread already in the bead out of the way, ensuring it didn't get caught in the second thread.

This probably makes more sense if you see it rather than hearing me talk about it. Here are diagrams showing the steps in the process:

Step 1:


Step 2:


Step 3:


The finished center bead (threads colored for clarity):