Thursday, March 31, 2005


In modern times, popular mass-produced rosaries are overwhelmingly made from round glass 6mm beads with 16 or more facets covering their surfaces. Occasionally there's some variation -- faceted cones, double cones, ovals. The dominance of these round faceted beads is so taken for granted that just about any other shape on eBay is billed as "unusual," "unique," or "rare" (and I hope everyone knows to take eBay descriptions of this sort with a liberal teaspoonful of salt!).

This particular type of bead seems to have experienced a great surge in popularity somewhere in the early to mid-20th century -- though of course faceted beads have been relatively common and cheap ever since ways to machine-cut them were invented.

As for historical rosaries of faceted beads, 500 Jahre Rosenkranz (many of whose photos are online somewhere at the huge Marburg Foto Index) has one rosary of faceted rock-crystal beads (#B72 in the book, from the Munich Stadtmuseum) on a dark wire chain that it tentatively dates "16th-17th c.", though on what evidence I'm not at all sure.

B72 Bergkristall

The beads are hard to see in the photo, but they look like they're round and have somewhere around 30 to 40 facets. By comparison with the attached reliquary medallion, assuming it's of average reliquary size, they might be somewhere around 8mm to 10mm in size.

Another rosary of the same material (#B75) has oval-shaped faceted gauds with gold caps and round faceted beads that are "squashed" along their vertical axis so they're somewhat disk-shaped rather than perfectly spherical.

B75 Bergkristall

Eight beads at the end of the "drop" or "tail" of the rosary are used to make a "credo cross" (a small equal-armed cross on which the Apostles' Creed is recited).

The terminal cross is missing (there's a loose end of string), but there's a little figure of St. Andrew with his X-shaped cross hanging from somewhere in the string. It's strung on a cord and has a small green tassel. This is dated "17th c.," again with no reason given.

These are probably the closest to the modern type of faceted beads that we're used to seeing.

Everything else that is faceted in the book that I can see from the photos is from the 18th or 19th century. I admit though, that I haven't yet gone through and tabulated all of the 200-plus catalog entries of beads from this exhibit (only about 60 of the 200 pieces have photographs :).

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Beads with passion

As I mentioned in Five-Wounds Rosaries, there's an entire genre of rosaries that feature various combinations of tools or symbols of the Passion of Christ. The simplest are the "Five Wounds" rosaries, which usually feature two hands, two feet and either a heart or a head, in addition to the usual Ave beads and Paters or gauds.

I'm not sure how much is known about how such rosaries have historically been used, and what prayers they have been used for. Since most of them have the usual five (or fifteen) decades of beads, they can be prayed just like a more conventional rosary. But of course the sequence of prayers we now know as "the rosary" is not, and never has been, the only possible combination of prayers said using a string of beads.

Here's an example that showed up on the German eBay a year or so ago:

light passion rosary

And here's an older one of blue glass beads, with carved bone parts and caps, tentatively dated to the 17th century. Note this one is 6 decades.


Another version:


Passion rosaries in general, like these, often make a rather eclectic selection from the many possible tools or symbols. A "five wounds" rosary may have hands, feet, a heart, a skull (as well as a separate head), a hammer, a chalice, or a little three-pronged item that represents a cluster of three nails.

Other "tools of the Passion" in the strict sense may include a spear (sometimes trident-headed), a ladder, pincers, a crown of thorns, and a scourge. I've also seen a clenched fist, which may represent being beaten.

Less obvious symbols include a rooster (!), representing the one that crowed to remind St. Peter of his denial that he knew Christ. You will also sometimes see a heart, a sword, a T-shaped tunic to represent Christ's "seamless garment," and even the pair of dice that the Roman soldiers are supposed to have thrown to see who would get the tunic. There are also a couple more things I haven't identified yet because they are shown on edge in the photos. A sponge is a possible candidate, as it's often included in the collection of similar items shown on a shield and collectively called the "arma Christi" (i.e. the "coat-of-arms" of Christ).

There are two Passion rosaries in the Cologne (Köln) diocesan museum that have more than five decades and a lively assortment of parts including most of those I've mentioned above. There are clearly some duplications and missing beads. Both are dated to the 17th or 18th century.

This one has a chain construction, 12 incomplete decades of faceted black glass beads, paters with silver caps, and cast silver parts.

In this one, each of the cast gold parts is placed between 2 silver filigree beads to mark the end of a decade, the assemblage serving as the Pater marker. The Aves are faceted coral. 15 decades. This one has two roosters and (I think)two chalices, suggesting it was assembled from fragments of more than one original.



Sunday, March 20, 2005

A Bad Blue rosary

My quest to accumulate a few "bad" modern rosaries is having some nice results. My friend Joan (thanks, Joan!) stopped by the local St. Vincent de Paul charity shop and picked up a couple of the little plastic-and-nylon-cord rosaries for me, to add to my collection of rosaries NOT to use if you want to create a historically correct impression for the Middle Ages or Renaissance. They did not, after all, have plastic back then.

I've also been hoping to find a not too expensive modern rosary that demonstrates what I mean when I say that many modern rosaries have medals and crosses that shout "modern art!" Usually those come labeled "Art Nouveau" or "1950s" when someone has them for sale, and they're priced at collector's prices... in the $30 to $50 range.

However, I saw this one, bid on it and won -- and it's just what I was after:

Blue beads rosary

The beads are plastic, and each one has an embossed image of Mary on it -- not totally tacky, I've seen worse, but the center piece (especially!) and cross are so excruciatingly typical of the 1960s that I hope people will get the point I'm trying to make in my classes.

Blue beads closeup

Of course, probably what I should really be doing this month is getting more pages up on the main website, so I can point people to examples of what they should be looking for in a medieval or renaissance rosary, rather than examples of what they shouldn't. :) But that's not quite as much fun (wicked grin)!


Thursday, March 17, 2005

Five-Wounds rosaries

Occasionally a rosary comes up for sale that has "hands" -- along with feet, a head or heart, and/or various tools of the Passion (nails, hammer, crown of thorns). In general these are referred to as "rosaries of the Passion", of which there are several types. I've seen a few of these that date somewhere in the 16th to 18th centuries; six are pictured in one of my mainstay reference sources, 500 Jahre Rosenkranz.

The exact configuration varies, as does the degree of sophistication. One of the more common types is referred to as a "Five Wounds" rosary. Generally these have five decades, with two hands, two feet, and one heart or head (or sometimes a skull). The hand-carved or cast-metal "body parts" are usually in addition to the Pater ("Our Father") beads, and usually they are strung directly on the rosary thread somewhere in the middle of each decade (i.e. they are not "charms" attached later). In the historical examples I've seen, the hands, feet, etc. are sometimes just flat cutouts, sometimes 3-dimensional and rather realistic.

This example, from the diocesan museum in Cologne (which seems to be one of the major European collections of rosaries) is of bone or ivory, from the 17th century:

And an enlarged detail:

There was actually a rosary very much like this, with wooden beads and cast-metal parts, for sale on the German version of eBay a year or so ago. Rosaries that are the least bit unusual from eBay tend to run in the $100+ range, but I'm still kicking myself for not having at least put in a bid. I did download the photos, though:

A closeup -- and note that this example has two hands, a head, a hammer and nails rather than five actual "wound" symbols:

eBay dark wood

Ways of counting the wounds of Christ vary, as do the choices of exactly what to feature on the various Passion-oriented rosaries (of which the Five Wounds is one type). The conventional five wounds are two hands, two feet and either the side (heart) or the head (crown of thorns). The heart seems more common. Hands, feet, heart, head, and something else would make the significant number seven, but what to count as the seventh is somewhat unclear; the bruise on Christ's shoulder from carrying the cross is sometimes suggested, though it's difficult to depict.

Making one of these rosaries is definitely on my long list of "things to do" for the study collection. You can actually still buy modern five-wounds rosaries, or the parts to make them, although the modern parts are usually quite a bit less exciting, being flat-modeled or engraved medallions. There are also enameled ones, which are quite nice.

Five Wounds

I've been threatening to learn pewter casting to make my own -- considering how sketchy and primitive some of the existing pieces are, I'm sure I can do at least that well at carving or modeling something to cast from.


Sunday, March 13, 2005

The 1830 trap

Once in a while there are people selling rosaries on eBay who aren't very familiar with what they've got. You can get some good bargains, that way . . . or you can, I imagine, get people wondering why their $50 piece doesn't sell (when it's something that's actually worth, say, $10).

For the most part, sellers on eBay are not happy if you tell them something isn't as old or valuable as they think it is. So it's something I rarely do. But there's one particular mistake I see about once a month. That's a seller who thinks they have a rosary from 1830.

The "1830" trap is easy to fall into if you don't know what you're looking at. Here's where you see it:


This is the front of a very popular Catholic medal, called the "Miraculous Medal," which turns up fairly often attached to, or as the centerpiece of, a 20th century rosary. There was a large upsurge of devotion to the Virgin Mary in the second half of the 19th and early 20th century, so there are lots and lots of these medals floating around. The date "1830" appears on all of them.

What "1830" represents is the date of the vision that inspired the medal: an apparition of the Virgin Mary to Sister (now Saint) Catherine Labouré, in the convent at Rue de Bac, Paris.

In a preliminary vision, Mary greeted Catherine familiarly and talked to her for a long time. A later vision showed Mary standing with her hands outspread, exactly as you see on the medal, with glowing letters surrounding her saying "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee." The vision then rotated to show the design for the back of the medal:


A voice told Catherine to have a medal struck after this pattern, and promised that many graces would come to those who wore it. To make a long story short, while Catherine herself remained unknown to the public most of her life, she succeeded in persuading her confessor and superiors to produce and promulgate the medal, which became instantly popular. Reports of miracles soon began to come in, leading to the popular name "miraculous" for the medal. It can be easily identified because the back is always the same "official" design.

The popularity of the medal, then, dates from the mid-19th century, as does (I think) the popularity of this particular pose for the Virgin, with her hands spread and "rays of light" radiating from them, representing graces. By itself, this pose is known as "Our Lady of Grace." Miraculous Medals have been struck with the 1830 date for more than 150 years now, and are still being manufactured today, so the presence of this "1830" medal doesn't mean the medal, or any rosary to which it may be attached, is anywhere near that old.

In point of fact, the vast majority of the "very old" "antique" and "vintage" rosaries on eBay are 20th century. Once in a while one does turn up that's clearly from before 1900, but it's not at all common, even for rosaries owned by someone's grandmother, or rosaries that are heavily worn.

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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Ostentation in silver

I've gone on at some length about the portraits of wealthy German burghers' wives with big red coral rosaries -- presumably a sign of wealth and success as well as emblems of piety. Well, not all the ostentatious rosaries in such portraits are coral: some are silver, often filigree. I'm sure these were considered equally expensive and showy, and they're also interesting because there's a bit more variation in their form than in the coral beads (which are usually plain rounds).

Here's a portrait of Kunigundus von Heimbach (born 1552 in Questenberg) by our old friend Bartholomeus Bruyn the Elder, who did a lot of such portraits:

This lady, painted in 1528 by "The Master H.B. with the Griffin Head" (Meister H B mit dem Greifenkopf), also has a rosary hanging from her belt:

Here's another one by Bruyn, dated around 1542:

And another (anonymous artist this time):

This one might be silver, it's hard to tell: the beads are round and photograph rather dark. They could also be jet or black glass.

And completely different from all the above, another portrait dated 1543, this one by Willem Key:


Monday, March 07, 2005

Many of the photos that appear in this blog are from the huge online Marburg Foto Archive, otherwise known as

It's a wonderful collection with just a few drawbacks. One drawback is that it's designed for broadband Internet connections: on my dial-up connection at home, I find it very slow sometimes, and occasionally it gets stuck and refuses to function at all.

Another is that it's largely confined to Germany, although it does include some images of objects that are of German origin but currently housed in some major museum elsewhere.

And the vast majority of the photos are black and white rather than color — many of the museums simply scanned and uploaded their already-existing inventory photos of their items, which may have been taken several decades ago. Photo quality is, shall we say, variable.

Yet another drawback is that the website offers an index of all the photos by artist, by subject, by a special image code and by other keywords. This would actually not be a drawback at all, and would be very helpful... if it worked. As it is, it's rather misleading, because the number of things that are thoroughly and properly indexed is rather small, and very few items have all possible keywords entered. So usually only a small fraction of the illustrations you'd really like to see will be displayed if you search on the relevant terms. It's much better at finding things if you already know where in Germany they are located, and in what collection.

Finally, it's a drawback for many of us that everything, including all the instructions, is in German. If you don't speak German, this may leave you flailing about aimlessly. So here are some tips to help you navigate.

Finding items in a known collection

If you know what collection a piece is in, the best way to look for it is to click on Orte (places) on the main page. When the l - o - o - o - o - ng list of places appears, find the one you want -- remember they will be listed by their German names, so Cologne, for instance, is under "K" for "Köln".

(An advantage of searching this way is that the Orte section of the database has a lot more items in it than the other sections.)

Once you've found the right city, most of the time you will want to click on Sammlungen (collections). If instead you click on the name of a place — something like "St. Johans Kirke" (I just made that one up) — it will likely show you pictures of the building, rather than of what's inside it. There are a lot of architecture photos on this site.

When you find the name of the museum or collection you want, click on it to open the folder. If it's a museum of any size, you will find yet more small folders. Embroideries will almost always be under Textil (textiles) but may sometimes be under Kunstgewerbe (which roughly translates as "applied arts"). Church stuff and jewelry (including rosaries) may be under Kunstgewerbe or Schmuck (jewelry). When you get to the lowest category, you will see rows of pictures on the right-hand side of the page, and you can pick what you want to look at more closely by double-clicking on the thumbnail.

On the separate photo window that pops up, there is an item in the menu bar that looks like it says "vergroBen." (It's actually "vergrossen," and means "make it bigger!"). If you click on this, you will get an enlarged view. If you keep clicking on it, usually the second or third click will take you to a place where you can download the picture, either as a JPG file (which is what you've been looking at in the other views) or as a TIFF file, which is a much bigger file but sometimes shows better detail.

Also, if you click on "Dokument," you get a document (duh!!) that gives more details about who made it, where it comes from et cetera.

Finding items by searching

This is more problematic, because the indexing is so far from perfect. You have to remember that, aside from architecture, the focus of this site is on paintings and drawings, and to a lesser extent, sculpture. Everything else may be indexed rather haphazardly, so searches will get some things, but not all of them.

For instance, although I estimate there are a couple of hundred pictures of actual surviving rosaries on the site, dating from the 15th to the 19th century, none of them turn up when you search on "rosenkranz" — German for "rosary". All you get is paintings and the occasional woodcut showing people holding rosaries. (You also get images of Mary Magdalene, for reasons which escape me.)

So. On the main page, on the menu at the top, "Suche" means "search." Click on that. This takes you to a page with three columns of search boxes. "Gesamtindex" is "general index." There are places for you to enter starting and ending dates, if you want. ("Von" = "from," "Zu" = "to".)

Look also for the little round button in the top lines between the words "nur" and "illustrierten." If you click on that (a black dot will appear) you will only get directed to things that have photos online.

You can enter your search word in "Gesamtindex" — this is actually the approach that's worked best for me.

If you have more information and want to try the other boxes, here's what they mean (top to bottom, left to right):

(Aktuere = Catalog [I think])
Künstler = Artist
Beruf = Profession
Werkstatt = Workshop
Auftraggeber = Client
Sonst. person = Other person (anyone else associated with the item)
Sozietat = Society (I don't know what this one means)
(Objekte = Object)
Art des Objekts = Type of object
Material/Technik = Material/technique
Standort = Location
Bauwerk = Building
Sammlung = Collection
Entstehungsort = Point of origin.

The third column is about "iconography," that is, the images and allusions used in the artwork (for instance, a woman pictured holding a small tower might be St. Barbara). Try your search words in the "Thema" or "Oberthema" boxes ("Theme" and "Larger theme" respectively).

When you have filled in boxes and clicked buttons on this page, click on "Suche starten" at the bottom. It will show you totals for each thing you've clicked, and at the bottom, the number of things that meet all your criteria. Click on "Galerie" and it will show you rows of thumbnails that you can click on for a closer view.

You can clear the search screen by clicking on "Suche zurucksetzen".

This should be enough to let you at least flounder around productively in this huge database. I have to admit that I have found a lot of useful things by accident rather than on purpose, but even so, there are really good photos (along with some crappy ones) if you can hunt them down.

Once you've found a photo, BTW, it's fairly easy to direct other people to it. You need the name of the picture file — the string of characters ending in ".JPG" — and then you can merely send people to, for instance: (a very peculiar hat)
or (which would make nice needlework patterns)
or (a picture of St. Margaret — whose dragon made me say "Awwwww, how cuuuuute!")

As you can see, the first part of the Web address is always the same, with just the photo's image name plugged in at the end.