Friday, February 13, 2009

Rosary or not: the people factor

part 3 of a series

The first essential of doing research on rosaries and paternosters is to be able to identify paternoster beads when we see them. This is especially important when we are looking at medieval paintings, prints, or statues; does a string of beads represent a rosary, or is it simply decorative?

(I have contemplated this question before: see parts 1 and 2 below. I'm gathering these into a series now because I have several more aspects I'd like to write about.)

There are several sets of possible clues. One is how people are interacting with the beads -- how and where they are being worn or held.

For instance, common sense suggests that a loop of beads held in the hands or hanging from an elbow is likely to represent prayer beads, and much less likely to be a belt or a necklace. Here's Prince Friedrich the Wise holding his beads.


(I wrote about these beads here.)

A person holding beads and kneeling, or putting their hands together in a "prayer" pose, is especially likely to be using them to pray with.

Small donors

(Another example here)

Beads attached to a belt are also very likely to represent a paternoster or rosary. Beads hanging from a brooch, pinned to a garment, or wrapped around a wrist are also likely to represent a rosary.

Then there are a few odd cases. Probably my favorite is the gentleman on the far right in The Judgement of Daniel (detail below), a panel painting by the Master of Mariapfarr from Salzburg in about 1500.

Rosary scabbard

I've always wondered whether his beads would go flying if he tried to draw his sword in a hurry. Now that I'm taking a closer look, though, the beads are below the sword's crossguard and are only looped around the scabbard; he'd probably be all right. There's another gentleman with his beads attached almost the same way here.

Rosaries worn around the neck are especially problematical. Today it's usually considered "sacrilegious" (at least in English-speaking cultures) to wear a rosary around your neck. I can't tell you how many people have told me that their Catholic grandmothers were horrified at the idea! But apparently in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was more common, though I'm told it was still frowned upon by some. (I've written about this here.)

The problem is how to tell the difference between a rosary worn around the neck and a decorative necklace. This takes some serious digging through paintings and portraits of whatever period you're interested in. Necklaces and other secular jewelry made from strings of beads haven't always been the fashion in all centuries or all cultures. There are eras where people simply didn't wear them.

I hope to write more about this later. But to try to answer the question for 15th and 16th century fashion at least, I've started to collect portraits from that period of people wearing something that's clearly a necklace. I want to see what the similarities and differences are. Many of the necklaces made of beads seem to be very short, just at the base of the neck (like what used to be called a "choker").


I also have to mention the woodcut of a friar with "flying" beads here.

The Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus are something of a special case. It is quite common to see the Infant Jesus playing with a string of beads, which the Virgin is often (but not always) wearing around her neck. In most of the cases I've seen, I do think these are rosary beads.

However, a short string of plain red beads worn around the Infant Jesus' neck -- especially if there is a little branch-like thing hanging from it -- is more likely to represent the sort of coral necklace that was often given to babies because it was thought to avert the "evil eye." Compare the one shown toward the end of this article (which I'm sure is a necklace) to this one (which I think is a rosary). And just this week I found an image that has both! This is the Virgin and Child with St. Wolfgang of Ratisbon, a votive picture commissioned about 1490 by Mathias Hierssegker in Austria.

Virgin & child with St. Wolfgang of Ratisbon

Lastly, while I can't point to any examples at the moment, I'd like to investigate the pictures I've seen of women wearing a girdle (i.e. a belt) around their waists which is composed of beads. I am operating mostly on logic rather than data here, but I very much doubt these are rosaries. First, I've never seen one that had any of the "key" characteristics that signal unmistakably "this is a rosary" (more about this another time). Second, to use such a rosary to pray with, you'd have to unhook it from around your waist: I would think that taking off your belt would qualify as "undressing", which a lady would never do in public.

But of course I could be wrong about that ;) I've been wrong before.

If you want to test your powers of detection, take a look at these links.
· German couple holding beads.
· I think this lady has one set of beads tucked into the front of her belt and is holding another in her hands (closeup here).
· Saint Joseph (far left, in yellow) has beads tucked into his belt here.
· Charles the Good, Count of Flanders, in a 1400s portrait.

I think these are all rosaries or paternosters. Do you agree?

Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Rosary or not?
Part 2: From a Spanish galleon



Blogger Mary Jane said...

I really enjoy this blog. Normally I read about sacred music or church politics. Paternoster is a wonderful change of pace and a great connection to history and art. Thanks so much. In fact, I've been inspired to think of learning how to make some of those beautiful medieval rosaries (I love the feeling of beads sliding along.) Thanks for your research and your love of the topic.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Rosary Guy said...

I agree in the first 3 cases that the object in question is a rosary. I am not sure what you see in the fourth case that suggests to you that what Charles the Good is wearing around his neck is a rosary (Not that I am really disagreeing with you, I just don't see it.)

My real question is about the third case. The figure in yellow doesn't have beads tucked into his belt. He is holding his right hand behind his back and appears to be working them through his fingers. While he prays he beholds the scene of the Holy Family before him. If you hadn't told me he was Saint Joseph I would have guessed he was the patron who commissioned the painting. I would guess the older haloed woman is Saint Anne, and the other man, halo-less, the one behind the Virgin Mother is Saint Joseph.

Why am I wrong about that? Where can I find out more about this painting?

4:09 PM  
Blogger Mrs.KAOS said...

Hi I have been reading you blog for a little while and I have the CA you wrote. I'm a member of the SCA and want to make paternosters for my house hold (1405, France) and was wondering where you got your supplies, especially your pilgrim tokens and crosses.

Thank you

7:01 AM  
Blogger Chris Laning said...

Rosary Guy: you're quite right, I didn't look at the painting closely before I posted the link. The beads are in the saint's hand, not hanging from his belt. And that isn't Joseph, though I had to stare at the painting for a minute or two.

I *think* this painting shows (from left to right) Saints Joachim, Anne, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph. Mary has her hair loose (symbol of virginity) and is wearing red and blue; the other woman wears a wimple and veil (indicating she's married). The whole scene strongly reminds me of a standard scene in paintings called the Holy Kinship -- which includes Mary, Joseph, Mary's legendary parents Joachim and Anne, plus assorted siblings and cousins.

Since none of the people in this painting have any other "attributes" or accessories that "label" them as particular saints, what we mostly have to go on is which saints are most often shown together;)

As for Charles, I'm not entirely sure whether that's a rosary either. It's a 15th century painting of a much earlier king, so it may not be an "accurate" image by modern standards: kings are often portrayed symbolically anyway, rather than realistically. (His hat is certainly quite bizarre!)

I admit, I'm reasoning more or less by a process of elimination here. But I don't recall seeing a man wearing any "true" necklace in a medieval painting that looks remotely like this -- the beads are very large and look like they are supposed to be wood. What it reminds me of the most in size and general configuration is Prince Ferdinand's beads earlier in the post. I suspect therefore that these are supposed to represent rosary beads as a symbol of how pious this particular king was.

3:03 PM  
Blogger Chris Laning said...

And for Kate: I wrote about this quite a long time ago in my posts on Creative shopping and More creative shopping, and not much has changed since then.

Fire Mountain Gems is still my favorite source for beads, although I go to Shipwreck Beads occasionally when they have something I can't find at Fire Mountain. Otherwise I like Fire Mountain lots better because they have things in stock more consistently, and more importantly, they tell you the exact sizes of everything they sell and are very up-front about what treatments their beads have had -- whether their carnelian has been heat-treated to deepen the color, for instance, or whether their red coral has been dyed. Shipwreck tends not to have this information.

As for pewter pilgrim badges and stuff, my favorite place to go for them is Billy and Charlie's, but I can also recommend (in no particular order)Pewter Replicas in the UK, Gaukler's Medieval Wares, and Talbot's Fine Accessories.

There are undoubtedly lots of other excellent places as well; these are just the ones I buy from the most often.

10:44 AM  
Blogger tony gallucci said...

new to your blog and will (but haven't yet) go backwards and read through your posts . . . wonder if you've written on the conundrum of pictures showing the infant holding a rosary with a cross/crucifix on it . . . seems peculiar

1:14 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

I'm contemplating today.

10 pearls separated by a gold bead. Repeated multiple times. Paternoster or just a pretty necklace? I think I'm going to make it as a very subtle paternoster, because that's my gut feeling.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Chris Laning said...

Good eye! I'm not sure I would have picked up on that one.

I really can't tell; I don't think we have enough information, since we can't see the part that's down under her bodice. The beads are certainly a size that could be either paternoster or necklace, and I don't know enough about jewelry in this time period.

What I *can* say, though, is that so far all the clearly-paternoster beads I've seen in women of this culture and century have been bigger than this, and either red (coral), black (jet) or silver. But I won't claim to be operating on perfect information here!

8:00 AM  
Blogger charis said...

Thanks for your posts on historical rosaries. They've been really helpful in my research for a seminar paper I'm writing on a Renaissance portrait Renaissance portrait. I think the necklace she's wearing is the paternoster rosary but my professor didn't seem to be quite convinced. I'd really appreciate your opinion on this. Thanks and I look forward to reading more posts on your blog!

12:46 AM  
Blogger Chris Laning said...

Interesting portrait! And the beads certainly at least *suggest* a rosary.

I think I'd have to see a closer view of the portrait in order to say any more than that, however. I really would like to see whether the beads are under or over her bodice, for instance, as well as getting a better look at what appear to be different-colored beads at intervals.

If you have a larger photo and would like me to look at it, I can be contacted by e-mail through my profile here, or at paternosters (at) igc (dot) org.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Allena said...

A very interesting discussion about the importance of prayer beads in art. Have to start looking for them...

That last picture, I find it intriguing that the Virgin Mary has such a strong resemblance to Our Lady of Guadeloupe...

Just feels a lot the same or me, same aura, same moon shape she's standing on. This one was painted 41 years before that apparition of Our Lady.

I do not recall many images that display this type of symbol, but's it's been a few years since those ol art history classes.

Great post.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Aidan Bailey said...

Hi - I'd be interested in your opinion about who would have rosary beads in the mid 15th century in England. From peasant to indentured professional to Lord?

4:14 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home