Sunday, December 21, 2008

Gifts and ghosts

I'm running a bit behind on the Christmas stuff here, but thought I would just mention that I have written about medieval-style rosaries as Christmas presents here. (The short version: yes, anyone who uses an ordinary modern rosary can say the same prayers on this one.)

If you want to make a medieval-style paternoster as a gift, and you have a friendly local bead store, everything you need should be there. There's a shopping list here and simple instructions here. It takes less than an hour to put one together (less than half an hour, really, unless you have difficulties making a tassel). You may want to take the trouble to braid the cord you string the beads on from thinner thread, as it's likely to be more durable.

I wanted to share a few photos of several more modern-style strung rosaries I've made, all variations on a theme. The community I work for has a number of symbols they're fond of, including the color blue, an anchor (for hope), a heart, and a rose, and all of these were made for members or friends of the community.

This one is sodalite, with mother-of-pearl markers:


This one is mother-of-pearl, with lapis lazuli markers and a striped glass heart:


Mother-of-pearl again, but the marker beads are flat blue glass roses:


I particularly like this one, which is blue "goldstone" (a type of glass) with cloisonné markers:

Ann's beads

And a detail:

Ann Shoff-detail

I also passed a sad little milestone this week: for the first time, one of the rosaries I've made has been laid to rest. I made this one a couple of years ago for a friend's elderly mother. By special request it was rose quartz (her favorite color) with mother-of-pearl markers, the Virgin Mary with roses, and a cross with shamrocks. My friend's mother died this past week, and it was buried with her. I hope it brought some comfort to her and to her family.

Here is the one I made for her:

Rose quartz rosary

Perhaps hundreds of years from now, when the world has changed completely and these electrons are all dust, some archaeologist will see these beads and be touched by the thought that they brought someone a sense of peace.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Christmas blessings


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:
Christmas 2005
Christmas 2006
Christmas 2007

Computer "wallpaper" with rosaries

And a post about Christmas-themed rosaries (which I still think is kind of a strange idea)


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Roses revisited

part 1

Since I write about rosary beads, I do my share of myth-debunking, and like anyone else who has written about rosaries, I get a lot of questions about beads made of rose petals. As I've discussed in some detail here, modern rosaries made of rose-petal beads -- or imitations thereof -- are perpetually popular. And truly, it's a nice idea, at least when one is not smacked in the face with cheap imitation rose scent upon opening the box with the rosary in it. (I have such a rosary: I seldom open the box ;)

Nonetheless, there are some common myths about rose-petal beads, and the biggest one is that rose-petal beads have something to do with why this string of beads is called a "rosary."

I've gone into some detail here on exactly how the rosary got that name. Briefly, "rosary" began as a word for a garden in which roses are grown. From there, a few authors used it to refer to a collection of essays, such as the Rosarium Philosophorum, a 1386 treatise on alchemy by Arnaldus de Villa Nova. It was a short step to extend this from a book of written essays to a book of written prayers, and then to any other sequence of prayers, written or not. The name "rosary" for the devotion -- which dates back to the middle 1400s with this meaning -- was reinforced by the circulation of popular legends that envisioned each prayer said as a "rose" given to the Virgin Mary.

Petals, and indeed beads, are nowhere in this story.

(Incidentally, the author of the first rosary manual, Alanus de Rupe, hated the “rose” metaphor because he thought it far too evocative of sensual pleasure. But of course that may have been why it had such wide appeal. He preferred to call the devotion the "Psalter of Our Lady.")

The story is further complicated by a problem with dates. In order for rose-petal beads to have anything to do with the word "rosary," you first have to find out if rose-petal beads even existed at the time you're talking about. For rosaries, that would be the late Middle Ages, especially the first half of the 1400s when what we now know as "the rosary" was in development.

I've been looking for years for evidence of when rose-petal beads were first made, and so far, I have not found anything that clearly dates them any earlier than the 19th or early 20th century. Sources like a 1996 issue of "The Herb Companion" or Dover books' reprint of Rose Recipes from Olden Times by Eleanor Rohde, are quite willing to label rose-petal mixtures as "medieval," but without -- as far as I can tell -- consulting anything other than their own imaginations. (Typical quote: "Centuries ago, when knighthood was reportedly in flower, noblewomen made fragrant beads of petals plucked from castle rose gardens...")

It's quite easy to find multiple recipes for rose-petal beads (here's one) on the Internet: most of them involve putting rose petals through a blender and simmering the resulting mush gently for some hours. Some recipes add a binding material such as vegetable gum or flour and salt. Simmered in a cast iron pan, the mashed petals turn black, otherwise the color may be dark red, pinkish or orange. When the consistency is like clay, small amounts can be rolled into bead shapes and pierced with a needle before drying.

It was in following up another clue on this trail that I discovered something new this week (well, new to me, anyway). I discovered that a book that I'd dismissed as a figment of someone's fantasy actually does exist, and probably was written by the author it's attributed to. And while it still does not produce a recipe for beads made out of rose petals, what it does say is quite interesting.

The book is usually referred to in English by the title of a modern edition, The Elixirs of Nostradamus. To give him his proper name, Michel de Nostradame (known as Nostradamus) was a prolific French writer and professional apothecary who wrote at least two books in the mid-1500s on medicine, as well as a series of Almanacs and his famous collection of prophecies, first published in 1555.

The book usually called the "Elixirs" originally had a very long title beginning Excellent et moult utile opuscule..., but it's more usually referred to as the Traite des fardemens et des confitures (Treatise of Cosmetics and Preserves) and was first published in 1555 (or 1552, it's not clear). There doesn't seem to be any doubt that Nostradamus wrote it, although as was very common in those days, he takes a lot of his material from earlier published works. (Copyright in the modern sense did not exist back then.)

I doubt that I could have found this seven or eight years ago when I first became interested in this question, but there are now at least two places on the Internet where you can see actual facsimiles of Nostradamus's publications online. One is the Nostradamus library at Repertoire Chronologique Nostradamus but I prefer the images at the related site Prophecies Online which also contains a (partial) English translation.

The pages of interest are 55 through 59, which contain Part I, Chapter X and Chapter XI. Right there at the top of page 56, sure enough, is the word patinostres (his spelling) and the recipe that follows certainly starts with gathering a large quantity of roses. (It says "five or six hundred, more or less" -- de cinq à six cents tant du plus que du moins) (I get tired just thinking about this!)


However (and it's a big however) the recipes that follow are not your classic recipe for beads made out of mashed-up rose petals.

There are in fact two recipes: in the first (Chapter X), you are instructed to make an extract of the rose petals and then throw the petals out and boil down the liquid. One of my correspondents has tried this, and she says what it actually produces is a very concentrated, strongly scented rose oil. As Nostradamus wrote them, the instructions say the recipe produces a "sweet-smelling, long-lasting paste" (une paste laquelle sera d'une bonne odeur durant longuement), but in the end it is described as "as thick as boiled honey" (asses espes comme miel cuit).

This is the recipe I've usually seen mentioned as producing "rose-petal beads," but clearly that's not quite what it does. This is made clearer by the next recipe, which I'll discuss in a future article.

All posts in this series:

Part 1: Roses revisited
Part 2: Rose pastilles
Part 3: The beads of Nostradamus