Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Paternosters: Greatest Hits

Excuse the geekery, but I attended a talk on Google Analytics recently, and I've now installed it on this blog. Google Analytics is a free service that can provide some very interesting data on web traffic, even for such a humble blog as this one ;)

First, there must be more than seventeen of you out there reading this, since the blog is getting in the range of 100 visitors per day. This is, of course, a very modest number compared to the "super sites" out there, but it seems to be fairly steady over time.

Second, it's interesting to see which pages come up as most popular. It looks like a little over half the people that come here do so as the result of a search of some kind, and about 2/3 of those are word searches rather than image searches. The image searchers may or may not be interested in what this blog is actually about, but I'd think the word searchers are more likely to.

(By the way, many of my posts have one or more "labels" which are listed at the foot of each post. If you want to see more posts on a particular subject, click on the label.)

Overall, the most popular pages seem to be the series of posts I wrote on Protestants and the rosary. There are four of these posts and three of them are in the top ten (at least in the small sample I have right now). I've actually noticed before when I look at the "live" feed in the sidebar that these show up rather often.

Next most popular, apparently, are people searching on the word "paternoster." I'm a bit surprised by that, since I wouldn't think the word is all that well known. But perhaps these are people looking for a definition.

Third most popular -- again, rather to my surprise -- are the posts I wrote on Islamic rosaries. This isn't actually something I know a whole lot about, but apparently the dearth of good information in English that I remarked upon when I wrote these posts still continues, since I'm pretty consistently getting several visitors a day looking for this subject. And not a few of them from countries where Islam is the majority religion.

Below this, the numbers get too small to really draw much of a conclusion from. I also suspect that there may be "runs" on a specific article for a few days when someone elsewhere on the Web mentions a subject. But here are a few that turn up fairly consistently.

Bean Beads. I suspect these two posts get visitors when someone searches on a specific type of seed (such as spina-christi) or on the words "seed" and "rosary." I wish I had more information on this, because I continue to see seeds that I can't identify used in rosaries, but it's often impossible to tell what they are from a photo.

Knots. Apparently I'm one of only a few sources out there that say anything about the actual knots used in today's common knotted cord rosaries. I also get visits from people searching for "Franciscan cord knots" which are basically the same knot, at least according to what shows up in historical paintings.

Saint Anthony. I am not at all sure what people who come here are looking for, but all of the Saint Anthony posts get visits. Some people seem to be searching for Saint Anthony's distinctive Tau-shaped cross, but others go to other posts in the series and I can't tell why.

Trisagion. Apparently the Trisagion is uncommon and intriguing enough that I'm still on the first page of Google links when people search for either the prayer itself or the Trisagion rosary.

Rosary for the Dead. Again it seems that there's not a lot out there specifically about this devotion. People also come here when they're trying to identify a four-decade rosary (which this is).

Roses. I'm quite happy to see my posts on rose-petal beads get traffic, because I'm mythbusting here. A lot of people have heard that medieval rosaries were made of rose petals: as far as I have been able to tell, this is simply not true, so I've tried to show how rose petals actually *were* used, which is quite interesting in itself.

Skulls. There are quite a few posts about this, but the one that I get the most questions about (not just web traffic) is the one about skulls on the crucifix of a rosary. Apparently some people are under the impression that only nuns and monks had crosses with a skull at the foot, but actually this is not a rare style and I'm happy to explain it. Also, modern Goth culture has linked skulls and rosaries together in a lot of people's minds, although the actual history doesn't really bear out this connection in the way most people seem to think.

Subjects that have had scattered attention in the last few days include milagros, pro-life rosaries, and rosaries on belts.

The popularity of some posts is giving me ideas. I'm actually gathering material for a post on the modern "belt rosaries" or "habit rosaries" worn by monks and nuns, because there seems to be a lot of confusion about them. I've also got more information stacked up about various other aspects of Protestant rosaries. Anglican rosaries are pretty well represented on the Web, but there's not a lot out there about Lutheran versions (for instance) and I was surprised to discover there are actually beads used by Unitarians. Then there are the currently popular "story bracelets," where each color or shape of bead stands for a particular quality or incident -- I suspect these have a longer history than one might think.

Now the real challenge: to find the time to write!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Bottoms up!

I'm an independent scholar not affiliated with a university, so I'm not always in the mainstream of news about the subjects that I'm interested in. I'm grateful to a member of the Paternosters Yahoo mailing list, who alerted me to a gorgeous and relatively recent book I hadn't seen: Edelsteine, Himmels Schnüre: Rosenkränze und Gebetsketten, a catalog of a 2004 exhibit at the Dommuseum zu Salzburg (Salzburg Cathedral Museum). The title translates as "Precious Stones, Heaven's Cords: Rosaries and Prayer Beads."


The extensive collection of beads in this volume is not, however, from the Cathedral's own resources; it's from the Fredy Bühler Collection, a private collection that has also been exhibited elsewhere.

I'm planning a more comprehensive review of this book, but I wanted to discuss one point in particular.

What I noticed is this: I'm a bit surprised by the way some of their sets of beads have been assembled. Although it doesn't say so in the book (that I could find -- my German is not the best), I would guess that most or all of the sets of beads in the collection have been re-strung at a fairly recent date, so what we are seeing is the collector's view (or perhaps the view of a previous collector or whatever expert was consulted) of what these may have looked like when new.

I wanted to single out the "tenners" as a particular example, because there's a very nice picture in the book of a painting that shows something rather different from the tenners in the collection itself.

One of the major sources of information about the rosary or paternoster beads of past centuries is their appearance in art of the period. Here, for instance, is Christoph Schurff, painted in 1580 with his beads (and two of his best friends ;).


For comparison, here are some of the tenners in the collection:


I've seen quite a few other tenners pictured in paintings or engravings. Some have beads all the same size. Others are graduated in size, and in every case I can think of, those in the paintings always have the bigger beads at the bottom. Here's a close-up of the painting above, showing Mr. Schurff's left hand and his beads in more detail:


There are not a lot of surviving tenners from this time period, and the chances are good that the ones I've seen have also been re-strung or reconstructed at some point, so they may not be in their original arrangement. These other surviving tenners too all seem to have the bigger beads at the bottom, including Bishop Fugger's ivory beads, which I wrote about awhile back.

But every one of the 45 or so tenners in Edelsteine that have beads graduated in size is strung with the biggest beads at the top.

What's going on here?

We are trying to reconstruct tenners from two sources of information, neither of which is entirely reliable. Images in paintings or engravings are subject to artistic license: the artist may or may not have chosen to show exactly what he saw. There are a number of paintings where it seems likely that the image presented is more symbolic than literal: it is painted as something that tells the viewer "these are rosary beads," but the real beads may have been bigger, smaller or different in number than what shows in the art.

And as I've said above, surviving beads, unless they come from a documented archaeological dig (which most do not) have almost certainly been re-strung at least once, and that may or may not be the same way they were strung originally. Unfortunately for us, until fairly recently re-stringing fell into the category of "routine maintenance" and the details of exactly what was done were often not written down.

From the evidence of paintings, I would tend to think that tenners with graduated beads are far more likely to have originally had the biggest beads at the bottom. Why are the beads in this collection strung the other way?

It's possible that the collector had information I don't. It's also possible that the collector or conservator made a single decision at some point that all of the tenners should be strung in the same way, and that that way should be with the biggest beads at the top.

the book

I ordered my copy of this book from the publishers with a bit of help from people who speak German better than I do. (The book is entirely in German, BTW.) It took about eight weeks to arrive and I think I wound up paying about $75 for it, including shipping.