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

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