Time for my annual "Christmas card," with a wish that everyone may receive the gift of joyful wonder at this season.
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 they love to play with things.
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 or attempting to hang them on his mother's ear, but I'm sure that's going to happen any minute now in some of the paintings I've seen. Fortunately, the beads in the picture are usually (as here) red coral, a good and safe (if expensive!) choice for teething on.
This particular painting is one that's hard to find good pictures of, since the beads are quite small and don't have a lot of contrast with the background (especially not with the Virgin's dark dress and red cloak). I found a full-page version of it in Krone und Schleier: Kunst als Mittelalterlichen Frauenklöster ("Crown and Veil: The Art of Female Monasticism in the Middle Ages"), the catalog from a 2005 exhibition in the Ruhr Museum in Essen, Germany.
When the Virgin is wearing a long string of beads around her neck, they are usually supposed to represent a rosary. But if these are indeed rosary or paternoster beads, they are a little unusual. It's very common in such paintings for the beads to be red. But it's uncommon to see beads this small and numerous -- there are a little over 100 visible, which means that the closest of the "standard" forms would be a string of 150. If this is a paternoster, it's also unusual to see it shown as a string of beads all the same size: most of these paintings show a string with smaller red beads and larger "gauds" or markers of some other material. Gauds are a much clearer visual signal that what's being represented is specifically a rosary.
Certainly strings of uniformly sized beads with no markers are a recognized form of paternoster, and one that seems to have been common at least as early as beads with gauds. It's still not at all clear whether the form with gauds or the form without gauds is earlier, or whether they are both the same age: some of the earliest surviving paternosters from Western Europe have two distinctly different types or sizes of beads. Prayer beads from Eastern Christian traditions are generally all the same size, as are most of the Hindu or Buddhist prayer beads from farther east, which may or may not have been an influence on Christian ideas about prayer beads (the jury is very much still out on that one).
There's nothing about the origin of the painting itself that suggests whether this is a rosary or not. It's one panel of a large altarpiece with scenes from the life of Mary, originally painted around 1410-1420 for the monastery of Cistercian nuns in Fröndenberg. But I've been looking at paintings of necklaces that are clearly not rosaries from this general period, and I haven't seen anything quite like this. Hmmm... another topic to add to the never-ending list for further research!
Previous Christmas posts:
Computer "wallpaper" with rosaries
And a post about Christmas-themed rosaries (which I still think is kind of a strange idea)