Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Cabbage-noster

Paternoster with flat rose marker beads

An excellent thing I've experienced this past year -- through correspondence, websites and the publication of Bedes Byddyng -- is more people becoming aware of paternoster beads and their history.

One result: more people making paternosters for themselves, especially people interested in medieval history and crafts.

I love it when people send me pictures, and this is one of my favorites. This "Cabbage-noster" and photo are by laurelfactorial, who gave me permission to feature it here.

The maker says this was an early effort, but it's still very cute. Really, the beads that look like cabbages are supposed to be roses. They are flat pieces carved on the front with semi-natural-looking rose petals, from various colored semi-precious stones. I first saw these in bead catalogs a couple of years ago, and now there are pages of them in every imaginable size and material. (A couple of examples here)
Greenrose Bleachedcoral

Hers look especially cabbage-like because they happen to be green. I think her small ones are probably serpentine (sold as "new jade" but softer and cheaper than real jade) and the large one might be green jasper. Her Ave beads are alternating rock crystal and black onyx, and it's strung on a green silk ribbon.

Aside from being amusing, this is an exercise in creative interpretation from the rather limited historical information on paternoster beads. As I have often pointed out, there are very few surviving paternoster beads from the Middle Ages, and documentary evidence isn't exactly thick on the ground either.

The ideal in historical re-creation is to find out what "they" did in the Middle Ages and simply do the same. But when we don't know all the details (and we often don't), we have to start from what we've got and make deductions, extrapolations, and some inspired guesses. And the fact that we can't re-create things perfectly is no reason not to try.

The first question to be answered is often whether the technology and knowledge were available in a particular time and place to make it possible to create the thing we are looking at. In the case of the "Cabbage-noster," on the whole it seems likely.

We know there were beads of rock crystal, though they were much more expensive than nowadays. Black stones similar to onyx were also used for paternoster beads by the wealthy. The carved "cabbages" were also quite possible with medieval technology. While the modern "roses" are probably machine cut, the technology certainly existed to carve such things by hand, as demonstrated by other cut stones, for instance a paternoster from Salzburg of bright turquoise-colored jasper whose beads are carved with spiraling facets.

A second question to ask when re-creating historical artifacts is whether the modern re-creation is plausible -- whether it would be unremarkable if it dropped through a time machine into the century and location of the originals. This is much harder to answer, because it depends on a number of things, including artistic style and which materials are used for which parts of the artifact.

In this case we see the effect of the modern marketplace on our attempt to do reconstructions. As a general rule, the materials used for the Paters or marker beads of a rosary are higher in value or social status than those used for the Aves or ordinary beads. Today, rock crystal and onyx cost about the same as jasper, but in the Middle Ages, rock crystal was a very high-status stone, more valuable even than amber or red coral. So when we see it in period rosaries it is usually only as marker beads.

Another question is whether period rosaries used two alternating types of beads in the Aves. I think the jury is still out on this one. I certainly can't say this was "never" done, but I can only find two examples, and both of them are very doubtful. One is a hand-colored woodcut, where the beads in the kneeling people's hands have been hand-colored alternating green and white. This may very well just represent the whim of the hand wielding the paint brush.

The other is this set of beads, from a painting of about 1500 from the area around Ulm:

multicolored 1500 ulm area

There certainly appear to be differences in the Ave beads here, but I'm not sure what, if anything, they represent. There seem to be at least three different colors of beads (other than the markers, which are all gold and swirly) and they don't seem to be in a regular pattern. Actually, we know this is probably not a realistically painted set of actual beads, since the plain beads are in groups of 10, 7, 10 and 6, which doesn't match any pattern of prayers I'm familiar with. So I'd be reluctant to accept this as evidence.

(I don't seem to have the full context for this painting, by the way, so if anyone can help me identify what it is and who painted it, I'd be grateful.)

As for artistic style, my main question would be whether medieval carved roses look like these: and by and large, they don't seem to. I found this example from Exeter Cathedral, probably carved in the late 13th or 14th century:


As you see, the roses are carved to show the entire face of the flower. This is different than the more modern style of the carved roses used in the "cabbage-noster" where the flower is seen from an angle, with several petals obscuring the flower center.

I don't mean to be critical of the "cabbage-noster" here; I think it's an interesting experiment and a good effort. But I wanted to use this as an example to explore some of the ways in which we approach making educated guesses about medieval prayer beads in the process of making our own.

My friends who study heraldry have evolved a rule of thumb, informally called the "rule of two weirdnesses." According to this, designing a new piece of heraldry that shows one departure from known period practice (one "weirdness") is a reasonable level of extrapolation and will probably produce something that could pass the "dropped through a time machine" test. However, when you get to two "weirdnesses," there's much more ground for doubt whether the result is really going to look acceptably medieval.

We are not medieval people and we don't know everything, so every reconstruction we make will be full of approximations and compromises. The important thing is to know what compromises we're making and to make the best ones we can.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Tickling Saint Anthony

There's at least one more interesting set of beads I want to mention in the Isenheim Altarpiece, this time on one of the inside panels. Here's the altarpiece with the inner wings open:


This altarpiece was probably commissioned for a church or guild honoring Saint Anthony Abbot, traditionally a fourth-century Egyptian hermit, one of the "Desert Fathers" of the early church. (There's a lot more information about him here.) The two painted panels on the innermost wings of the altarpiece show, on the left, the visit of St. Anthony to his good buddy St. Paul of Thebes, another of the Desert Fathers, and on the right, St. Anthony's temptation by demons. Here's the left panel:


And the right one:


And, for completeness, a closer view of the statue of St. Anthony -- note the pig nestling under his robes on the right, and another held by his follower:


Saint Anthony is distinguished by a Tau (T)-shaped or sometimes L-shaped staff. This is actually an early version of the more familiar curly-headed bishop's crozier. The crutch-like shape may also relate to the fact that St. Anthony is almost always shown as a very old man.

The "Temptation of Saint Anthony" is one of those classic scenes artists seem to have really enjoyed painting, perhaps because it gave them carte blanche to exercise their imaginations and dream up some really interesting demons. The moral of this story is that being alone in the desert doesn't eliminate the possibility of sinning, it's just that it comes to visit you instead of you having to go look for it. Hieronymus Bosch painted the scene several times, with his usual weird creatures in the background (for instance here and here), though for some reason most of those directly tempting St. Anthony in this case appear to be human. Jan Wellens de Cock, Pieter Bruegel, Bernardino Parenzano, and Lucas van Leyden were other examples I could readily find, with the last-named having particulary interesting creatures on offer. But Grünewald's version in the Isenheim altarpiece has them all beat.

As you can see in Grünewald's Temptation panel, the demons are combinations of animal parts and nightmare, and there's a bit of confusion about exactly which parts belong to whom where they are all jumbled together. They are pulling the saint's hair, threatening to beat him with sticks and making terrifying faces (not that they can help that last part).


As you might expect, my attention went straight to the saint's right hand, which something with a bird beak is trying to bite. In that hand you can see he is holding his staff and also a string of beads:


As beads, there is nothing particularly remarkable about them; we can see just five plain round red beads. Being red, they are likely intended to be coral, which was probably not popular with fourth-century hermits but very popular with those who could afford them in 15th-century Alsace.

It's really the expression on Saint Anthony's face that I find the most intriguing thing in this picture. I am no art historian, so I don't have a good feel for how fifteenth-century painters depicted facial expressions; it's entirely possible that this particular expression means something I'm not aware of. But to me, it looks as though Saint Anthony is laughing, or perhaps giggling. I suppose this is as good a reaction as any when one is being tempted, especially when one has no intention whatever of giving in.

Or perhaps the demons have been given Supernatural Tickling Powers. Oh horrors.

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