Wednesday, March 26, 2008

100 names, five stories

There seems to be general agreement among those who discuss the 99 Islamic names for Allah that the 100th name of Allah is “hidden” or mysterious. Sufis and others may meditate on the “mystery” of the 100th name as a symbol of God’s transcendence, or as a symbol of the true nature of God, which the other 99 names only attempt to describe.

This is relevant to the rosary in a sort of indirect way: the ideal way to recite the Islamic tasbih, which is often called the Islamic "rosary," is to recite the 99 names of Allah, one per bead.

Until now, I have known four different stories about the 100th name.

I should make it clear that, as far as I know, all of these are folk tales or speculations, rather than established theology. I am not Muslim, and I wouldn't presume to say whether any of them have any basis in Islamic theology or not. Some are clearly intended to be humorous.

Here are the four stories, which I'm repeating from one of my earlier posts:

• The 100th name of Allah is known only to angels, since it's too holy to be entrusted to human beings.

• The 100th name will be revealed by the Mahdi (the prophesied redeemer of Islam) at the end of time.

• Allah will reveal the 100th name in the heart of each true believer who devoutly prays the other 99 names.

• The 100th name is known only to camels.(!)

Someone recently sent me a fifth story.

The story goes that whoever invokes Allah by his mysterious 100th name, all his prayers shall be granted.

Now at the present time, the only one who knows this 100th name is Satan, and Satan intends to use this on the Day of Judgement to have all his sins forgiven.

But what Satan doesn't know is that on Judgement Day, Allah will make him forget the 100th name...

(Personally, I still like the one about camels the best. It would explain such a lot... ;)


Monday, March 24, 2008

Six, seven, and the Servites

While I'm in Europe, I'm posting a couple of excerpts from Bedes Byddyng, with a few extra notes, including some of the newer research I did for that book that I haven't discussed here before.

Quite a few other devotions exist in the Roman Church that use beads of various configurations. These can equally well be called “rosaries,” though they are most often called “chaplets” or “crowns” to distinguish them from the standard fifteen-decade rosary with mysteries. While new chaplets have been invented in all centuries, and in especially large numbers in the 19th and 20th, there are several that have longer histories. A few of them date back -- or might date back -- to well before 1600, including the the Franciscan Crown, the Brigittine rosary, the Rosary of the Passion or the Five Wounds (both of which I've discussed before), and possibly also the Seven Sorrows chaplet. (There's also the Trisagion chaplet, which I may get to soon).

The Franciscan Crown

The seven-decade Franciscan rosary has a unique format. Each decade of the Crown is dedicated to one of the Seven Joys of Mary: the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, adoration of the Magi, finding of the child Jesus in the Temple, the Resurrection, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (which includes her coronation in heaven). (This combining of the Assumption and Coronation of Mary as one event was a common early variant for the five-decade rosary as well; in that case, the Last Judgement was used as the fifteenth Mystery.)

On the first Ave of each decade, the theme is introduced after the word "Jesus": for instance, “...and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, whom thou didst joyfully conceive.”

The Franciscan Crown also adds two Aves after the last decade, for a total of 72, which according to one tradition is the number of years the Virgin Mary lived on earth.

The legendary origin of the Franciscan Crown says that it dates from a Franciscan novice’s vision of Mary in 1422, who told him that since he was now a poor friar and didn’t have money to bring her offerings of flowers any more, he could offer her spiritual “flowers” (Aves) which she would like even better. It should be noted, however, that this story, or one very similar, is also told about the five-decade rosary.

The Brigittine (six-decade) rosary

The six-decade or “Brigittine” rosary (actually 63 beads in all) may not be as old as the lifetime (1304–1373) of St. Birgitta of Sweden, after whom it’s named, but there are mentions of it from at least the 16th century and possibly earlier. Saint Birgitta may have used a string of paternoster beads, but this rosary was probably associated with her at some later time because it includes 63 Aves, the three additional ones being said after the last Pater Noster. These represent the number of years the Virgin Mary is supposed to have lived on earth, according to the Revelations of Saint Birgitta (clearly a different tradition than the Franciscan one).

The first written documentation of this rosary is a decree of the Congregation of Indulgences issued in 1714. This quotes a lost brief of Pope Leo X from 1515, granting an indulgence of one hundred days for each Ave to those reciting the Corona of St Bridget.


The Servite rosary (Seven Sorrows chaplet)

What prompted me to post about this in particular was a recent discussion on the Paternosters mailing list over at Yahoo!groups. I've done a bit more investigating and expanded what I wrote for Bedes Byddyng.

As we’ve seen with Saint Birgitta, the founding date of a religious Order does not necessarily indicate that its particular devotions all originated at that date. This is likely also the case with the Servite devotion known as the Seven Sorrows chaplet.

In 1240, seven members of a Florentine confraternity known as the Laudesi, or Praisers of Mary, were gathered in prayer, under the presidency of Alessio Falconieri. The Blessed Virgin appeared to them, surrounded by angels bearing the instruments of the Passion of Christ, and exhorted them to devote themselves to her service. These men formed the Order of Friar Servants of Mary (to give them their formal name) and adopted as their principal devotion the sorrows of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross.

The Servites were not the only ones to celebrate this and similar devotions. Various lists of the Sorrows of Mary were in circulation, including lists of five, seven, fifteen and twenty-seven(!) sorrows, and not all the lists include the same items. The devotion has also been expressed as Our Lady of Sorrows, the Sorrowful Mother, or Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (solitude), commemorating Mary’s bereavement.

In 1413, this theme was given its own feast day in Germany, called the Feast of the Compassion of Mary. Later in the fifteenth century, this evolved in some places into a commemoration of the Five Sorrows of Mary, corresponding to the Five Wounds of Christ, or in others, of the Seven Sorrows, beginning with the prophecy of Simeon when the infant Jesus was presented in the Temple.

The question is when the Seven Sorrows devotion became a chaplet recited on beads. I have turned up no evidence one way or another about this so far. As I've said before, we cannot just assume that because certain prayers were said, that beads were necessarily used to count them. That is a separate invention and may have occurred at a quite different time. You can equally well count prayers by making marks on paper, or by moving pegs from one hole to another in a piece of wood, or even by counting on your fingers.

The Sorrows currently agreed on are those set forth for the Servites in 1668. This, if not before, may also have been when the prayers of the devotion were set. There are seven groups of seven Aves, with a Pater Noster at the end of each group.

These are the Seven Sorrows used in the chaplet:

(1) the prophecy of Simeon;
(2) the flight into Egypt;
(3) having lost the Holy Child at Jerusalem;
(4) meeting Jesus on his way to Calvary;
(5) standing at the foot of the Cross;
(6) Jesus being taken down from the Cross; and
(7) the burial of Christ.

In the absence of evidence, my own guess would be that that the Servite chaplet probably does not date quite as far back as the 1200s. (As ever, I'd be happy to be proved wrong by the evidence.) At that time, the little evidence we have suggests that beads were primarily used to count large numbers of Pater Nosters. Far more likely to me is that the Servite chaplet was part of the great variety of "chaplets" or devotional sequences of prayers circulating in the 1450s.

You may blame my degree in biology for the fact that I am fond of referring to these as a "primordial soup," Out of this wide variety, the rosary and related devotions have "evolved," in the sense that the most popular ones have been the ones to survive and spread.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ooooooh, shiny!

I am writing a few shorter, less serious posts at the moment, because when you read this I will be on a two-week research trip to Europe. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it ;)

I've been meaning for a while to share a few of the photos I've gleaned of some nice modern rosaries. These are from my "amazing what you can do these days" folder, in that all of them are in one way or another made from materials that couldn't have been used, or in some cases didn't exist, a few decades ago. All but the last are from rosaries for sale on eBay.

There's a bit of a historical purpose here, too. One of the challenges in making medieval-style or replica rosaries is that it requires some "creative shopping." By and large, unless we are bead makers or metal casters ourselves (and I'm not), we are limited to what's available (and affordable!) on the commercial bead market, and that can be frustrating because modern fads are not the same as what was in fashion in (say) 1483.

For glass beads, various iridescent coatings have become very popular in the last few decades. They go by various names, including "aurora borealis," "vitrail," "iris," and "luster." To the best of my knowledge, these finishes on beads didn't exist until very recent times; most of them are not simply sprayed onto the beads but require modern techniques like vapor deposition in a vacuum.


Likewise, in the last ten years or so it's become possible to make an affordable cultured pearl out of just about any glass bead shape, so we now have not only natural-shaped pearls, but flat, square, faceted, twisted, petal-shaped and cross-shaped pearls. Cultured pearls in mass production were not possible until the beginning of the 20th century, when techniques were invented to reliably create pearls "in the round" that were not attached to the wall of the pearl shell. I should add that while natural colored pearls do exist, bright, colorfast dyes for pearls like the ones shown here are also quite a new thing.


While various shaped glass beads can be made by hand, the mass production of pressed glass beads in a mold is also fairly recent, dating back only to the early 1800s. While beads of other glasslike substances, such as faience, have been known since ancient Egypt, beads of true glass were mostly shaped either by lampwork techniques (which involve melting) or were cut as if they were semi-precious stone, which was expensive and required a lot of hand labor.


At times I gripe a bit, because the newer bead types in some catalogs seem almost to be crowding out the plain rounds, ovals, simple cuts, and other shapes I look for when making replicas. But historical bead types do still exist, though you may have to look a bit harder for them.

Finding out just how recent some of the new techniques are has also given me a renewed appreciation for traditional glass beads like those from Murano that contain gold or silver foil and other enhancements. Before modern finishes, the options for adding "sparkle" or "bling" to paternoster beads were a lot fewer and more expensive. Foiled beads must have been quite a welcome invention; they aren't cheap, but neither are they solid silver or gold.

And finally, here's a rosary someone made just for fun, out of recycled faceted glass beads and miniature Christmas tree ornaments! This was made by a student at the school I work for as an art project a few years ago, and I keep it in my box of modern examples because I think it's cute. ;)



Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Anthony the ordinary

Previous Saint Anthony posts:

Tickling Saint Anthony
More beads for Saint Anthony

Two more Saint Anthonys with paternoster beads today: one from Spain, one from the Netherlands, both from the third quarter of the 15th century.

Nuño Gonsalves painted the St. Vincent Altarpiece in 1467-69 for Lisbon Cathedral (it's now in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga). The deacon Saint Vincent of Zaragoza is one of the patrons of Lisbon. This is a huge, six-paneled piece crammed with faces. The ones in the front rows seem to be saints, Portuguese royalty, and other famous figures, and behind them are the faces of about thirty spectators. (By the way, out of about 60 figures I count exactly two women in this picture: Saint Margaret kneeling in the front of the left central panel, who has a small dragon apparently dancing on her head and is also holding paternoster beads, and another woman behind her, who is thought to be the Infanta Isabel, daughter of King João I.) Saint Vincent appears dressed in red and gold deacons' robes in both of the central panels. Six panels is a bit unusual for an altarpiece, but if there was ever a seventh panel in the middle showing the Virgin and Child or some other scene, it's been lost or hasn't been identified yet.


Many of the figures (especially among the spectators) are thought to be portraits of actual 15th-century people from Lisbon, including the artist and Prince Henry the Navigator, though there's some uncertainty as to exactly who is who. There is more information here.

At any rate, Saint Anthony appears in a curious crouched position in the front of the second panel from the left, called the "Fishermen" panel. He shows next to no distinguishing marks, so my identification of him as Saint Anthony is based on his brown robe (which is apparently a signal meaning "hermit") and on what the book I got it from says. The photo in the book is rather small, so this is the best reproduction I can get, and it's not very good.


About all we can really see in this fuzzy photo is that his beads, too, are wood-colored, and they seem to be rather loosely strung. I can't even be sure of their shape -- they could be disk-shaped, they could be round or oval.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The real star of this series, however, is Saint Anthony's beads in the Portinari altarpiece, painted by Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482), and now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

In some ways these are the most interesting beads so far, because they are painted in a way that suggests these are real beads that might have been owned by a very ordinary person, painted (more or less) from life, rather than an abstract concept of beads (as the Ghent altarpiece beads seem to be). Here is Saint Anthony, on the left. The figure on the right is Saint Thomas the Apostle; that vertical pole he's holding is a spear, one of his attributes. Saint Anthony is nicely identified by his T-shaped staff and by the bell in his other hand.


Clothing historians often complain that they never get to see much of what ordinary people wore in history, since both the surviving garments and surviving documents such as wills and inventories focus mainly on the clothing of royalty, the Church, and the wealthy, and these are also about the only people who ever get their portraits painted. Well, here we get to see what I think are a very ordinary person's beads, and it's nice to get such a good look at them. (I love books with BIG photos!)


The beads themselves look very real. There are 28 beads that look like they are probably made of bone, shaped like fat rounded disks (rondelles), one or two fatter than the rest. There are seven transparent beads -- a very small one right above the little equal-armed cross, three smallish spheres, two large spheres, and one rondelle. The bead just below the cross might also be transparent and just doesn't look that way because it's against a dark background and shows no highlights or reflections -- or it might be black. Anyway it's another large sphere.

It's very interesting that these beads are so irregular in size and shape. Common sense suggests this could have been quite normal for the beads of a common, not too well-off person. They might have been homemade, or if they were bought, irregular beads would likely be cheaper. And if your purpose is to count prayers and not to show off (more expensive beads were often "conspicuous consumption" pieces) then a few irregularities don't matter.

The transparent beads I would guess to be glass, as the cheapest of the transparent materials available. (Amber and crystal were luxury materials.) Again they don't all match. If you compare the beads with the size of the saint's fingers, they are by modern standards quite large for rosary beads, the biggest nearly an inch across. I have a theory that the reason modern rosary beads are usually only about 1/4 that size is that modern people generally don't display their rosaries like jewelry, but stuff them into a pocket or purse.

What is probably not quite realistic is the bead count. Not counting the marker beads, I see groups of 5 (or 6), 10, 7, 5, and 5, which doesn't match any pattern of prayers I can think of.

Usually when I see bead numbers that don't make sense -- especially when the bead groups don't all have the same number -- I attribute it to artistic license, the artist painting to make a nice picture rather than feeling compelled to reproduce a real model exactly. These beads are otherwise so realistic looking, however, that I am now wondering whether that's a correct assumption, or whether there really were prayer beads like this, or whether perhaps the artist might be painting a real set of beads that has been damaged and imperfectly mended. I'll keep my eyes open now for more evidence on this question.

Or I can just add it to my list of questions for, "If I ever get to heaven, I am going to track down so-and-so and ask....."!

Labels: ,

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The dating game

Now that my name has been out on the Internet for awhile, I occasionally get questions about rosaries that people have found or inherited. I'm happy to answer them when I can, though I know much less about beads from more recent times (anything later than about 1600).

One type of question that makes me a little nervous, though, is when I'm asked about the date of someone's rosary. Sometimes this is an inherited rosary, but most often, it's a question from someone who has a rosary they would like to sell on eBay. Almost inevitably, they would like me to tell them it's very old and valuable. Unfortunately, it's usually not.

I do run across a very few rosaries with at least some real documentation of their dates. There's one currently for sale by "Church-woman Antiques", for instance (they always have delightful things) that is known to be at least 95 years old because the current owner (who is 95) remembers being told by her mother that she'd had it since before the owner was born. But such family stories are seldom written down, and memories do change and become less reliable with time, or when the story is transmitted from one person to another.

Part of the reason most of the rosaries I'm asked about turn out to be modern is pure statistics. There are a lot of perfectly nice old rosaries out there in the world, but as any archaeologist will tell you, even very common artifacts that were manufactured in large quantities have very low survival rates over the long term. I am guessing here, but I'd say that probably 99% of all the rosaries in existence right now date from sometime after 1900. Of the remaining 1%, I'd guess that at least 90% of those date from sometime in the mid to late 1800s. That means that perhaps one out of every thousand rosaries is older than 1800 -- and I suspect I'm being generous here.

Rosaries older than that certainly exist, but in much smaller numbers. I've seen a fair number of filigree rosaries from Europe, a few of which may very well be 18th century (the 1700s) -- but I'm basing that on other people's reports that that is when the style became popular, and I don't know what the evidence is. Certainly most of the "filigree" rosaries I see are made (like the one shown here) from machine-stamped components, which would put them firmly in the 19th century and the days of mass production. True filigree is hand-made from curled and soldered wire and is much rarer (and more expensive because of all the hand labor).


By the time we get back into the 1600s and 1500s, there are literally perhaps a couple of hundred surviving rosaries in museums, total -- most of them in Europe. I have no idea how many may be in private collections, but I would be surprised if the grand total in existence were more than four or five times that number -- out of all the many millions of rosaries and paternosters that must have been made in the last five or six centuries.

Another reason dating rosaries is difficult is that in some ways, styles have changed very little. Rosaries from the 1600s may have the exact same construction, number of beads, and arrangement as rosaries 400 years later. Of course wishful thinkers are going to hope that since the style dates back to the 1600s, their rosary might be that old too. A hopeful seller contacted me about a rosary he found while snorkeling in Grand Turk and Caicos(!), for instance, but I had to point out that it seemed to be made of wood and string, neither of which lasts very long in the sea.

There are a few key characteristics that at least enable us to say a rosary must date from after a certain time. Chain construction with wire links (as opposed to stringing beads on thread) can occur anytime from the early 17th century onward. I'm still not sure when the addition of the short string of five extra beads ending in a cross to the rosary dates to, but I certainly don't see it in the pre-1600 rosaries I look at, and its introduction may date from as late as the 1800s. Faceted beads, especially large numbers of faceted Ave beads, mostly became popular only after the invention of facet-cutting machinery made them easily affordable.

I've also seen several "old" rosaries (like the one below) that incorporate not just beads strung on wire links, but actual lengths of pre-made, flattened chain between the decades (called "curb chain" by jewelers) and so far all the ones I've seen like this seem to date from the 1940s or later. (Thanks to Catherine for the photo.)


Sometimes the size and shape of the beads, or the type of material they are made of, will give some clues -- glass bead aficionados can recognize "carnival" glass from the 1910s and 1920s, for instance. But most rosaries are made using crosses, beads, medals and other findings that were quite common types, and nothing is really added in the process of rosary-making (with a few exceptions) that provides any further information.

The most useful parts of a rosary for dating purposes are generally the medals or crosses. Very plain or simple ones don't change much, but often the more elaborate ones are styled like the jewelry of the same time period. Here, for instance, is a rosary with metal parts that practically shout "1960s" to the knowledgeable eye.

Blue beads closeup

Medals and occasionally crosses may have engraved dates, though all the date means is that the rosary was made sometime after that date, and not necessarily very soon after. Many rosaries have the "Miraculous Medal," for instance, which has the date 1830 on it because that's the date of the vision on which the medal is based. But rosaries with that "1830" medal are still being made today.

So anyone hoping to obtain fabulous riches from old rosaries is likely to be quite disappointed. But rosaries from the 20th and late 19th centuries are often interesting for reasons of their own, and many collectors are quite happy to find a nice one, especially one that has been well loved or has a story attached.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

More beads for Saint Anthony

For reasons I haven't yet figured out, certain saints are more often pictured with paternoster beads than others in medieval painting and sculpture. Saint Jerome, for instance, if he's shown in his study will very often have a string of beads hanging somewhere in the background.

Saint Anthony Abbot is another saint often pictured with a paternoster. Probably one of the reasons is to signal his status as a prototype of all holy hermits, along with his friend Saint Paul of Thebes. Another major reason is that tradition says Saint Anthony counted his prayers using a pile of pebbles, throwing one away after each repetition of his prayer, which makes him a forefather of the rosary as well. His beads, however, are generally not shown as a pile of pebbles, but as an ordinary strung paternoster of whatever time period the painter decided was appropriate -- usually the painter's own century.

As I think I've mentioned, the temptation of Saint Anthony by demons is a popular scene, and in most of these scenes he is holding a string of beads, often rather more conspicuous than the small glimpse of beads we see in the Isenheim altarpiece. One of my favorite "Temptations" is this one, a detail from the Penitence of Saint Jerome triptych by Joachim Patinir, painted about 1515-24 and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The Square Halo, a favorite book of mine about saints and their depiction in medieval paintings, notes that these demons appear to be rather quiet and polite as demons go -- tapping gently at the saint's book to get his attention, rather than pulling his hair or tweaking his nose. Enlarging this part of the painting reveals details of the beads and also some rather intriguing details of the book he's reading -- perhaps it's even identifiable, but in any case it has a very fine tooled leather cover.


The beads appear by their color to be wood, which makes sense if the saint is off in the wilderness somewhere. There are probably supposed to be five decades -- set off by marker beads somewhat larger than the others -- but the painter didn't quite count them precisely as there is one "decade" with only eight beads.

A rather more magnificent set of beads is held by Saint Anthony in the forefront of another painting, the Hermit Saints panel (labeled "Heremite Sancti") of the very famous Ghent altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, painted for Saint Bavo Cathedral around 1432. This is a huge painting, with many panels showing saints of various types all surrounding the central picture: there are groups representing virgins, martyrs, apostles, popes and clerics, soldier saints, hermits, pilgrims and so forth.

Ghent altarpiece

The holy hermits are in panel 13 (bottom row, just to the right of the central scene) and Saint Anthony and Saint Paul of Thebes are in the front row, as befits their role as prototypes. You can tell which is which by the fact that Saint Anthony has his staff -- L-shaped rather than T-shaped this time. There is supposed to be a blue Tau-cross on his robe, but I can't see it in this reproduction. Also, as is often the case when these two saints are shown together, Saint Anthony is on the left (heraldic "dexter," the position of honor), indicating he has precedence in rank.


Since the events in the painting are supposed to be taking place in Heaven, or at least in the Book of Revelations, Saint Anthony is not restricted to plain wooden beads, but has a long straight string of about 35 beads that are probably supposed to be rock crystal. It also has fancy pearl-embellished tassels on both ends; clearly in Heaven, wealth is infinite and saints can afford whatever they like!


The beads carried by Saint Paul of Thebes in the same painting are black, on a red string, and are probably supposed to represent jet. I can't think of any particular association between Saint Paul and jet, but these would be valuable beads, although not as valuable as Saint Anthony's. There are 21 beads visible, though the exact number is probably not significant. Of more interest, there seems to be a flat cross of some sort at the bottom of the loop of beads. This area of the painting is quite dark and it's difficult to see details of the cross in a reproduction. It appears to be a cross pattée with the arms narrow at the center and wide at the ends.


I have another couple of Saint Anthonys to show, but I'll save them for another post.

Labels: ,