Counting to ten
One of the common forms of medieval rosary or paternoster is a string of just one decade — ten beads. The Germans call this a "Zehner" which literally means "Tenner." The beads are usually rather large, giving the owner an opportunity to show off a few extra large, ostentatiously expensive beads, such as red coral or elaborately carved boxwood.
"Portrait of a Man with a Rosary," attributed to Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (Netherlands, 1545, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY) (This man looks like he really doesn't want to have his portrait painted!)
By and large, the tenner seems to be a "guy thing." So far I haven't seen any depictions of one being held by a woman, although both men and women are seen holding longer multi-decade strings and closed-loop rosaries.
A number of style variations are possible. Just a quick survey of the examples I can find easily gives these:
· A string of ten beads (sometimes an eleventh, larger bead) with a finger ring at one end and a cross or other pendant at the other. Several examples survive, such as this one:
Simple Zehner or Tenner from the Diocesan Museum in Köln (Cologne, Germany)
· An open string of ten beads,loosely strung with tassels at both ends, sometimes with an eleventh, larger bead. Often worn looped over a belt. Something similar — not strictly a tenner, since it has 16 beads and an additional contrasting bead in the center — is in the background of the painting The Magdalen Reading
· The Chatsworth paternoster. A ring at the top, followed by a carved wooden cross, then eleven large carved wooden beads, and at the bottom a "prayer nut" bead that opens to show carvings inside. Given to Henry VIII of England by Cardinal Wolsey (16th century).
More unusual examples include:
· The "seven skulls." A ring at the top, ten (probably) heavily carved beads with gilded silver beads in between, and a silver pendant. 15th or 16th century, German. This particular string has seven remaining beads, but it is likely there originally were ten.
Seven boxwood skulls (prob. orig. 10), with silver gilt, niello and enamel spacers, ring, & crescent. Inside each skull are 2 carved scenes against feather background. 39cm, skulls ca. 2cm. closed. (Baltimore Museum of Art).
· Twelve carved apricot kernels, with silver beads in between, and a tassel at the bottom. I have my doubts about this one, since a magnified view of the photo shows that the end without a tassel is a rather frayed-looking knot. I strongly suspect that this is merely twelve beads that were once part of a longer string. Since they are so elaborate (and expensive!), they would probably have been salvaged even if they were all that remained of the original rosary.