Monday, December 24, 2007

A Blessed Christmas

Madonna mit dem Apfel

Here is my "Christmas card" for you, with a wish that everyone may receive the gift of joyful wonder at this season.

In my various travels -- real and virtual -- I am always enchanted to discover yet another image of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus with beads. So many of these pictures were clearly painted by people who love and are well acquainted with REAL babies and how much they love to play with something so appealing to the sense of touch.

Infants approach the whole world with a sense of openness and discovery, as you'll know if you've ever tried to keep one from putting everything she encounters into her mouth. I have yet to see the Holy Infant shown actually chewing on beads, but I'm sure that's going to happen any minute now in some of the paintings I've seen. Fortunately, the beads are usually red coral, a good and harmless (if expensive!) choice for teething on.

This particular painting is a bit of a mystery. I've seen two versions, and while I'm no art historian, it seems fairly clear from the museum labels that no one is sure just who painted either one. I found the color version above on REALonline (which, annoyingly enough, I can't get to work at the moment, so I can't easily check what it says about the painter). My notes say it is tentatively identified as a copy after Joos van Cleve, but all I can see that this has in common with van Cleve's work is that he painted the same subject, the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus. The style of the painting is quite different.

Then I found what seems to be a slightly different version of the same painting -- this one has a bit of landscape in the background, seen through a window, but the pose is identical:

Madonna mit dem Apfel

This image comes from the KIK-IRPA (Royal Institute for the Study and Conservation of Belgium's Artistic Heritage) website, and the painting is in Liège at the Musée Curtius (which seems to be in flux and doesn't have a very organized website at the moment). The information on the KIKIRPA site attributes this one to the school of Joachim Patinir (1480-1524), which doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me either, considering all the paintings I can find online by him are broad landscapes with a few small human figures. So I don't think this is really his style either.

It sounds to me like the curators who wrote the labels were guessing. I'll be keeping my eyes open, and would welcome any further pointers. (So far I and my faithful readers are 2 for 2 on identifying mysterious paintings!)

I should mention, by the way, that for the purpose of creating a pretty "greeting card," I've done quite a bit of retouching and mending on the color image above. The original looked quite scratched and rather beat-up, and I've tried to smooth over the flaws while (hopefully) not destroying essential details like the folds and edges of the Virgin's very filmy and transparent veil. (I'm interested to see the Virgin's ears showing so clearly through her veil. It seems a bit unusual to see her ears at all -- usually they're completely covered. Aren't women's ears supposed to be rather erotic at this period?)

One intriguing feature that I think I can see a bit more clearly in the Belgian black and white image is the drinking glass on the side table. It's something of an artistic challenge to paint a transparent object, and the details don't come through very clearly in the color image, which is rather small. The black and white version shows a bit more detail including -- I think -- indications that we have here a covered cup, not a simple goblet. The detail below shows where I've lightened the image to show the lid -- I'm obviously meddling with the image here, but I'm following original details that I think I can see in closeup view.

Apfel goblet

There's a rather better detail of such a covered glass here.

Additional links

Previous Christmas cards:
Christmas 2006
Christmas 2005

An article about another painting by van Cleve which was altered later to include a passion flower

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Bishop's beads: a terrestial sphere

Bishop Jakob, part 3

Previous posts in this series:
The beads of Bishop Jakob
The Bishop's beads: a celestial sphere

The biggest of these beads, as we saw in the last post, was engraved to represent a celestial sphere. The next bead (#10) is clearly a "terrestrial" sphere, showing continents and oceans in a more or less familiar fashion. I at first thought we were looking at Eurasia and a rather fragmentary Africa in this closeup view, but comparing it with other views, it appears those are on the other side of the globe, where they appear in something close to their actual outlines. This view, then, is probably supposed to be North and South America, with the southeastern parts of North America rather enlarged and bulgy and a number of vague island-like things that are probably supposed to be Caribbean islands and bits of the South American continent.


Frustratingly, in a very close view it's clear that the continents have lettering all over them, but I can't read any of it with one exception: down near the South Pole a large peninsula of the southern continent (now Antarctica, but I don't know if that was actually known yet) is appropriately labeled TERRA INC?G?TA -- almost certainly "terra incognita" (unknown land). (Yeah, I know. Big help.)

Two inscriptions in the southern ocean area say ___BERANV? SIVE CAPRIC___, which I would expect to have something to do with the Tropic of Capricorn, and CIRCVLVM INSVLA ("circle of the island"?), which I can't make any sense of offhand. You could say I'm out of my depth here :)

There is also lettering around the Antarctic Circle, similar to what we saw on the other bead, but only a letter here and there is readable -- I'm not even entirely certain which way up the letters are. I think I can see a T, a space, and what might be VM, but nothing is recognizable.


Aha! I had this post all drafted when it occurred to me to check one more source: the catalog (500 Jahre Rosenkranz) to the 1975 rosary exhibition in Cologne, Germany. Yes, there is a bit more information, and most notably, the name of the artist who engraved these beads: Antonio Spano.

The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York has another small ivory globe engraved by Spano (no picture online that I can find, unfortunately) dating from 1593. Spano signed his name on that globe "Antonius Spano tropiensis," the last word giving his home city as Tropes (near Naples). He was granted a pension by King Philip II of Spain in 1595 and died in Spain in 1615 -- which, if nothing else, tells us that Bishop Jakob's beads must pre-date that. And they might very well date from before his installation as bishop in 1604.

Hmmm. Spano signed the Morgan Library globe just below the Antarctic Circle. I wonder if the lettering in that location on Bishop Jakob's bead is his signature here too?

What can be seen of the engravings on the other beads is rather cryptic. What I can see on Bead #9 looks like land and water areas with a lot of "lollipop" shaped trees. This could represent the separation into land and water areas in Genesis 1:9, or more likely (considering what's on the next bead) this could be the creation of plants (Genesis 1:11): "Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so."

Bead #8 has a very clear sun with long rays near its "north" end, which could represent the verses about the creation of sun, moon and stars (Genesis 1:16): "And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also." In one of the other photos, the other side of this bead appears to be engraved with a field of stars.

The rest of the description of these beads from 500 Jahre Rosenkranz doesn't provide a whole lot more detail. It says:
Elfenbeinperlern mit Darstellungen aus den Prophetien der Karsamstagsliturgie, Erschaffung der Welt, Sündenfall, Arche Noe und anderen alttestamentlichen Szenen; gravierter Haltering; Credocreuz mit Maria und den vier Evangelisten.

Rough translation:
"Ivory beads with interpretations of the prophetic readings(?) of the Holy Saturday (Easter) liturgy: the Creation of the World, the Fall, Noah's Ark and other Old Testament scenes; [also] an engraved end-ring, [and] a Credo cross with Mary and the four Evangelists."

This doesn't actually give a whole lot more details for "decoding" the scenes on the remaining beads, but it does mention that Noah's Ark and the Garden of Eden are in there somewhere. Which means we don't have to look for an exact correspondence between each bead and one of the seven Days of Creation: the interpretation of "stories from Genesis" gives a lot more latitude.


Beads #7, 6, 5, and 4 are very hard to decode from these photos, although there is at least one pair of human legs on bead #4 -- they look as though they might be climbing a ladder. That might be the construction of Noah's Ark. There are also people visible on beads #3 and 2. I'm willing to believe there are engravings of Mary and the Evangelists on the cross, but I can't see any more than faint traces of engravings in any of the photos.

The punchline (if I can call it that) to this long description is: these are the only photos I've found of this piece, and we really can't tell very much from them. Unless someone else can point me to more photos somewhere, it sounds rather as though I'm going to have to track this paternoster down myself and take my own photos.

The good news is that it looks as though that's going to be possible in March. I'm currently planning a research trip to Germany for the last two weeks of March, and I *think* I am going to be able to get to Konstanz, which is where these beads probably still are. (I'll check first, of course.)

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Monday, December 10, 2007

The Bishop's beads: a celestial sphere

(Bishop Jakob, part 2)

In The beads of Bishop Jakob, I started to discuss an ivory paternoster that belonged to the early 17th-century bishop of Konstanz, Jakob Fugger. [Was that really two months ago? Gack.] The photos I have of this aren't very good, but I'm going to explore whatever details we can see in them. If anyone knows of better pictures or publications about these beads, I'd really like to know about them.

First, I'd been searching for a portrait of the bishop himself, and finally found one when it occurred to me to look at Wikimedia Commons, a rapidly expanding source of images that I don't think I've mentioned before. A search on his name didn't turn up anything (for some reason) but here he is, filed under "Bishops of Konstanz":

If you click on the link at Wikimedia Commons that magnifies the picture, it says in the corner that this was painted in 1598 and that our fellow was 30 years old at the time.

So. Back to the beads.

When I showed a slide of these beads in a paper I gave last spring, someone pointed out something I hadn't mentioned: unlike most of the other paternosters I was using as examples, but like a lot of later ones, this one is constructed with wire links, rather than as beads threaded on a cord. This construction seems to have come into fashion in the very early 17th century, based on the few other examples I've seen. It's almost universal in modern rosaries (except those that are threaded on modern flexible bead wire, which I'll talk about someday I promise).


Wire chain construction is generally more resistant to breaking. My experience with wearing threaded rosaries is that even when the thread is very strong silk, it's still rather prone to wear and tear, and also will snap if it catches on something. The disadvantage of wire links is that a wire chain is prone to kinking when it's twisted, and can be tricky to untangle; and of course, you also can't slide the beads along the thread as you count them but instead must move your fingers along the entire chain of beads.

Bishop Jakob's beads are graduated in size, something I was asked about the other day. To the extent that I can generalize from what beads look like in paintings, I've only seen this on short straight strings or "tenners" like this one. Prayer beads in loop form are usually shown with all beads approximately the same size (except for the marker beads). When a tenner has graduated bead sizes, as here, the end with bigger beads always seems to be the bottom, the end furthest away from the wearer's body.

In here somewhere I should also mention that I'm not convinced we have this entirely in its original state. As we currently have it, there is a ring, a cross, and eleven beads, probably representing ten Aves and one Pater Noster. This is quite a logical arrangement and seems complete for prayer purposes. However, there is a wire loop at the bottom of the eleventh bead, which is now bent over, but which could have originally connected to something else. It seems unlikely that more beads were involved, but there might very well have been a tassel, or a medal or other ornament.

There are a grand total of four photos of this paternoster in the Marburg Foto Index. Three show the entire string, and two of these seem to have been taken from the same side of the piece, probably at different times. The remaining overview seems to be an attempt to show the other side, although some of the beads appear to be turned through perhaps 120 degrees, some more and some apparently not at all.

The fourth photo is a close-up of just the two largest beads. This is the only photo big enough that I can read any of the lettering, and even so I can't really be certain exactly what is going on with the motifs, though I can make some guesses.


The museum label on the photos says they are engraved with "Szenen aus der Schöpfungsgeschichte" (scenes from the Creation Story). From what I can see of the two largest beads, bead #11 (the biggest) seems to be a celestial sphere, and bead #10 next to it, a terrestrial sphere. This could represent the first words of the Biblical account, which starts, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

On the celestial sphere, you can see the two bands crossing each other around the middle that represent the celestial equator and the plane of the ecliptic, and the rest of the surface seems to be covered with drawings representing constellations (and dots that might represent individual stars). In the center of the view we can see a very well drawn ship, representing Argo Navis (the Ship, no longer recognized as a constellation). To its left is a dog, labeled CANIS MAJOR, and to the right is the outline of Centaurus, the Centaur. Above the Ship and Centaur is part of Hydra, the snake, and the little bird that appears to be perched on the snake's back must be Corvus (the Crow). These are all Southern Hemisphere constellations, so I had to look them up -- I'm a bit more familiar with northern ones. These appear backwards from what's shown on modern star maps, because unlike most modern maps, we're seeing them as though we were on the outside of the "heavenly sphere." (Modern star maps show our actual view, from the inside.)


There is undoubtedly a lot more detail here -- these photos show faint tracings of lettering here and there, though often not enough to be readable. Apparently the beads were engraved, and then the engraved lines were filled with ink. Where the beads have been handled a lot, the ink has rubbed off. Probably some of the engraving has also been worn down, but I'd expect to be able to see a lot more of it if I had the actual beads in front of me, rather than a photo.

What I can read on the "celestial" bead is the CANIS MAJOR label and a few bits around the bead's "south pole" where there is still ink. A scribed circle is labeled CIRCVLVS ANTARCTICVS for the Antarctic Circle, and to the left are letters just outside that circle that I think say DEVS CREAVIT TERRAM (the two R's are fairly clear, the rest more fragmentary, but "terram" would fit what's there).

Also, upside down from the CIRCVLVS inscription, just to the right of the bead's central hole, are two short lines that I think say something like SOLST ITIORUM (with a little imaginative reconstruction). It appears to be labeling a particular point on the circle, or an inscribed line that runs north from that point to perhaps the "north pole." I can't see enough of what is in that area to tell much more than that. None of the other views of this bead are clear enough to show any lettering as more than a series of fuzzy dots. Hopefully someone who knows more astronomy than I do can explain this to me. (Whatever I used to know is rather rusty; I've had to look up most of this constellation stuff as I went along.)

(to be continued)

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