Saturday, January 29, 2005

News of the (slightly less) weird

As readers of this blog know, I hang out on eBay now and then, to check out the rosaries and other religious goods for sale. Some surprisingly old and magnificent things show up there -- the "skulls" rosary in Death's-head devotions for instance -- but occasionally I just have to post some "News of the Weird" about some of the more peculiar rosaries that turn up. I consider this educational .

This time, these are rosaries on the strange side, but a bit closer to what we think of as "normal" -- I think.

Alphabet beads
alpha rosary

The person selling this one was using it as an example and offering to make a "custom" version for the buyer with whatever names they wanted -- presumably, names of family or loved ones or whoever one wants to be reminded of while praying. I've also seen one of these that spelled out "+-A-V-E-M-A-R-I-A-+" in each decade.

Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys rosary

It's true that medieval rosaries sometimes had pendants or charms attached that were quite secular, such as scent flasks or lovers' tokens. Still, it's rather startling to see this as the modern equivalent! The beads are in the team's colors as well. Several other "sports team" rosaries were for sale at the same time as this one, presumably by the same seller, who may or may not also be responsible for this one:

100% Italian
Italian rosary

In the colors of the Italian flag, with a central medallion that looks like one of the Popes (the inscription is too small to read) and a hanging charm that says "100% Italian." Irish and Polish versions were available too.


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Death's-head devotions

Would you give your sweetheart a ring with a grinning skull on it as a symbol of your love?

In the Middle Ages or Renaissance, you might well have done exactly that. Such a "memento mori" ("remember death") gift was a demonstration that you were a serious, devout and right-thinking person, just the sort of suitor that would favorably impress your sweetie's parents. But I can't help thinking that the private reaction of some young ladies at receiving such a gift would still be "Eeeeuuuwww -- Yuck!"

Needless to say, the medieval preoccupation with skulls continues to fascinate moderns. The Victorians enthusiastically spread "medieval" doom and gloom everywhere. Modern "goths" are fond of skulls as well. The notion that medieval Christianity is naturally gloomy and oppressive makes skulls seem like a natural decorative motif. But does the impression that rosaries and skulls go together have any evidence to support it?

What I've been able to find is actually fairly minimal. A number of crucifixes, some but not all of them old, show a small skull at the foot. This skull represents Adam, the first man who brought sin into the world, which is counteracted by Christ's death on the cross.

There are some isolated skull beads or pendants that survive that may well have decorated rosaries. Of the more or less whole rosaries that we have, quite a few have skulls -- but only one skull per rosary, usually at the end. The rosaries that have skulls are easily recognizable as a special type because they almost always have other additions -- small metal or carved bone representations of hands, feet, nails, a cup, a heart and so forth. These are "rosaries of the Passion" or "rosaries of the wounds," a fascinating subject in themselves.

Skull-Christ bead on Rosary of the Passion

There is also one splendid string of seven skulls (almost certainly ten originally), which dates from the 16th century. It's now in Germany, but almost certainly comes originally from Mexico. The skulls open into two halves, and inside each half is a miniature religious scene carved in boxwood, with a background of iridescent feathers -- a type of work almost unique to the Spanish colonies in America.

Those are, rather surprisingly, the only historical contexts before the 19th century in which I've found skulls attached to rosaries.

So I was fascinated with an antique-looking rosary using small skulls for marker beads or "gauds" that appeared on eBay a few years ago -- with very little information attached and at a very high price. The skull beads, which looked to be about half to three-quarters of an inch in size, were gilded silver, each with two tiny rubies set in it as eyes. The cross attached was not a crucifix, but of a type I've seen in a 17th century context. I saved the photo because it was so intriguing, and I still wonder whether it was really that old or whether it was a later piece (perhaps from Mexico).

I am also still kicking myself about another eBay find. Someone was selling an entire chain (about 20) of hand-carved wooden beads showing a Christ head on one face and a skull on the other. I can't imagine they were any older than 19th or 20th century, but they were well done and looked as if they had just walked off the page of a museum book:

Wooden skull bead

Unfortunately I didn't have the couple of hundred dollars the seller wanted for the whole string, and he wasn't selling the heads individually. I should have taken the plunge and invested in them. I probably could have made a good profit.

There are some fairly good little "skull" beads in the half-inch range out there for sale, usually of bone. (There are also some really terrible ones.) I found a whole string of good ones, and, taking a few liberties with the historical evidence, here's a rosary I made for a friend of olivewood beads with bone skulls as the gauds:

Olivewood rosary with skull gauds

Posts in this series:

Death's head devotions
Skully bits
Skulls: the inside story
Skulls: the inside story, part 2
Skulls: the inside story, part 3
Voldemort, part 2
A skull of one's own
More living color

Labels: ,

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Bishop Bob's beads :)

One day when I was supposed to be doing something really important with a deadline attached, I took some time off instead to do something totally frivolous -- I made some miniature paternosters.

This one is made from #6 seed beads, strung on red silk, and is supposed to look like amber. I made it as a gift for my friend Nancy Spies, author of a wonderful book on tablet weaving.

Bishop Bob's beads

I was fortunate enough to be in the audience the year that Nancy gave her paper on brocaded tablet-weaving at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (held in Kalamazoo, Michigan every May). Before her talk, she had spread out on the front table her silk and gold pattern samples, made and photographed for the book's cover. But she had held back one of her demonstration pieces.

When the first slide of "Bishop Bob" appeared on the screen, the entire audience cracked up with laughter. The good Bishop is an 18-inch plastic skeleton, whose "burial vestments" -- liberally trimmed with brocaded card-weaving -- are patterned on those of a 13th-century bishop.

Bishop Bob in his coffin

He has a cope, a dalmatic and an alb, all with tablet-woven trim on edges, cuffs and neckline. Around his neck is a tablet-woven stole, on his wrist is a maniple, and around his waist is a gold-brocaded tablet-woven cincture, complete with braided fringe.


He also has a bishop's mitre with tablet-woven trim around the edge, and two streamers of tablet weaving down the back.


He has a knitted pillow on which to rest his head, and one glove with tablet-woven trim at the cuff -- Nancy said it was hard enough to knit that small that she decided to just do one, and make it a "relic" rather than a pair of actual gloves for his hands.


I decided that Bishop Bob needed a paternoster as a finishing touch, so I enclosed the little "amber" rosary in a padded envelope and sent it off to Nancy. Two days later I got an e-mail from her that began, "After we picked ourselves up off the floor laughing..."

Here's Bishop Bob with his authentic knitted stockings, shoes and paternoster!


My friend Heather Jones has been making a set of cloth rag-dolls in historically authentic clothing of various periods -- Bronze Age, Egyptian, and so forth -- and since she too made a bishop (this one based on a 14th-century bishop from Nubia), I decided he needed a paternoster as well. Since he's from North Africa, he's made of natural colored linen (rather than white) and his paternoster, the same size as Bishop Bob's, is opaque blue, representing lapis lazuli. His pectoral cross is half an earring from the thrift store.

Bishop Timotheus

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Big Berthas

In an idle moment (well, maybe several moments) with a fast Internet connection, I've tried to find all the examples I originally saw in the Marburg Photo Archive at of the BIG red coral rosaries I mentioned in Big, Red, and German a while back.

I've been saying they're "fairly common" for the wives of prosperous burghers in the 1500s, but exactly what evidence do I have to back this up?

Here are some of the ones that first caught my attention. (Clicking on each of these takes you to the 600k original photo at Bildindex):

All of these are by Bartolomaeus Bruyn the Elder (1493-1555), from Köln (Cologne), who painted at least twenty portraits of this type (not all with rosaries). The Cranachs and other contemporaries also painted portraits in this style.

Quite a few of them, like the first one, are pairs of portraits of a husband and wife. Some of these are probably betrothal or marriage portraits, especially if the people shown are young, or holding rings or flowers. Others may simply be tokens of middle-aged economic success.

Here are more of the Big Berthas.

I just found this one (1536, painter unknown):

This one is by Joos van Cleve:

Here is an unusually late one (1632) by Christiaen van Couwenbergh, whose usual portrait style is quite different. Seemingly this was a client who wanted something old-fashioned:

And for amusement, here's one being held by a doll!

Labels: , ,

Friday, January 14, 2005

What's in a kit?

I teach a class on historical rosaries a couple of times a year -- and actually I'll be teaching a slightly adapted version at the Renaissance Symposium in San Jose, California on January 23rd.

All the classes start the same, with a focus on my "study collection" of replicas and a few modern pieces. I basically give a rundown of rosary history as we currently know it, illustrating it with my study pieces, which everyone in the class gets to examine and fondle.

That is, in fact, one of the main reasons I set out to make such a collection, including as many types and styles of rosaries as possible, since I'm a great believer in "learning by touch." Nothing is better, in my opinion, for getting a "grasp" on history, and for helping people to imagine and understand what historical times were actually like, than having real artifacts they can touch and use.

For the same reason, I always include a "hands-on" section where people get to make an inexpensive, but reasonably good replica. So far I've tried three different kits for the second part of the class. I've learned that I have to stick to one type of kit per class, since there's usually only me to help a dozen or so students, and it helps if everybody is trying to do the same things.

The one I always do first is a simple rosary of fifty Aves, five gauds and a cross, strung on silk. I've worked out a kit that costs about $6 to put together; I've been asking class members to give me $10 for a kit and a copy of a color handout that costs me about $3.50 a copy to produce, so I make a minimal profit.

The kit consists of these parts:

- A 16-inch string of plain round 8mm glass or bone beads. In this size, a string usually contains somewhere around 51 to 53 beads.

- Five gauds, usually in the 10mm range, of a different color, material or shape. I have a variety of colors of lobed round "melon" shaped beads, "double cone" shaped beads, long oval bone beads, pierced wood beads, and occasionally ceramic or horn (though at the moment most ceramic beads seem to come with non-historical smiley faces or flowers painted on them).

- About two yards of silk thread and a "medium-large" sized twisted wire beading needle. The best silk thread I've found is Gutermann size F or FF, but I also have some "Gemstone" 2/5 thread from Halcyon Yarn, which I don't like as well because it doesn't seem to be quite as strong. It's also fuzzier. I like the twisted-wire needles because they have an eye that's easy to thread, but "collapses" nicely to fit through small bead holes.

- One standard base-metal "clamshell" finding to hold the closing knots for the strand. I show people how to glue their knots, but I never trust knots unless they are also contained in some sort of crimp or metal bead, and these seem to be reasonably presentable-looking. I've never seen anything like them on a period rosary -- or rather, only on pieces that I know have been re-strung in modern times.

- A base-metal cross, usually between 1+1/2 and 2+1/2 inches long.

I make up these kits in color combinations that seem good to me, and tell people to pick a kit where they like at least the main color. Then I give them the choice of trading parts if they want different gauds or (as occasionally happens) something other than a cross for the end. I keep in my "kit box" little packages of gauds in different colors and shapes, an assortment of "celtic knot" and other pendants, and I also let people pick a little cheap charm or two out of the box if they like. (I bought a lot of aluminum "milagros" awhile back, some of which look remarkably like period "votive" charms -- heads, arms, legs, hearts, etc.)


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Praying on (almost) all cylinders

In my recent Lozenges, flowers & sabots posting, I mentioned a rather dark portrait of René d'Anjou with a rosary that seemed to be made of cylindrical beads. I've now found another one -- this one a bit more visible, from a 1510 portrait (also rather dark) by Lucas Cranach (the Elder) of Elector Friederich the Wise of Saxony (1463-1525). (Interestingly, Friedrich is mostly remembered for protecting Martin Luther from the Inquisition!)

Here are the picture and a closeup of the beads, both of which I've lightened up in Photoshop so you can see them better. Click on the photo to see the closeup.

The original photo online is at, the Marburg Photo Archive, which has thousands of images of art from Germany.

About 26 beads are clearly visible (not counting the ones hidden in his hands), plus a drum-shaped ending bead and tassel. The color suggests they might be wood, and at least one spherical marker bead can clearly be seen in front. We can't tell from the way they are lying whether this is a straight string or a loop -- I can only see one thread going into the top of the tassel-bead, but that could be due to the shadows. If the painter was depicting these accurately (which he may or may not have been) this might be a string of 30 (three decades) or 33 beads -- not that I can necessarily say offhand what particular devotions may go with either of those numbers.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

More creative shopping

As I've said before, I discovered early on that a big part of making replicas of historical rosaries is "creative shopping." What's available from ordinary bead and jewelry sellers is not necessarily what I need to match the style of historical pieces.

Goodness knows I'm thoroughly immersed in other projects these days, but I'm threatening to learn pewter casting (even took an introductory class in it, thanks Diane and Mark!) because I simply can't find the metal parts I need. I don't have any experience trying to sculpture things in three dimensions, but most of the period examples look amateurish enough that I suspect I could do about as well if I had the equipment.

Crosses are a particularly acute problem because I'm always looking for pre-Renaissance and "primitive" styles for the rosary kits I sell to classes. For kits, I'm looking for crosses that cost under $2 apiece, which means my favorite source for unusual crosses and medals, Rosary Workshop, is out. They have wonderful things, but they tend to be in the $6-$12 range, and I do buy them for my study collection pieces.

While I haven't seen anything quite like them on period examples, I've settled for a couple of styles that seem plausible, such as the ones pictured here:

(Some of these were one-time buys, but Fire Mountain Gems and other sellers pretty regularly carry the two on the left in either "antique pewter" or "antique gold" finishes.)

A funny thing seems to have happened to cross styles since the Renaissance. Almost none of the Renaissance crosses I've seen have expanded ends to the four branches of the cross. (There are a few that have tri-lobed ends, but I've only seen that in drawings.) The branches of the cross are quite straight and constant in width. But modern crosses almost always have expanded ends -- for all the net searching I've done, perhaps 99% of the ones available do. This makes shopping for Renaissance-like crosses at least as hard as for medieval-like crosses, if not harder.

However, what really drives me to consider casting things in pewter myself is the nearly complete absence of medieval-like medals and other tokens. There are exceptions -- Rosary Workshop does have some medals that look quite medieval, although their originals are usually undated, or sometimes 19th or 20th century. I've also gotten some good medals from eBay online -- though often what's for sale is a group of assorted medals of which you have to take all or none, still they're usually inexpensive enough that that's not much of a burden. You also have to wade through an abundance of several extremely popular and post-medieval images, such as the Sacred Heart (Jesus with a burning heart on his chest), the Miraculous Medal (showing Mary with her arms outstretched), which dates to the 1840s, and St. Therese of Lisieux, canonized in the early 20th century.

At the moment my preoccupation is with "Passion" rosaries, which come in several variations, but which often include a number of 3-dimensional metal castings, such as detached hands and feet, a little cluster of nails, a circular crown of thorns and so forth. Nobody seems to be making such things for sale anywhere, let alone in any style that looks medieval. I realize that at the moment, the market for such things would be extremely limited, but who knows: with my usual luck, two years from now they'll come back into fashion. Probably just about when I've given up and laboriously made my own.....