Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Auchinleck paternoster

This is actually a bit off topic, but I found it quite delightful and wanted to share it.

The Auchinleck manuscript contains a large collection of Middle English poetry from a period when relatively few Middle English texts survive. It offers (says the website where I found it) "a rare snapshot of the kind of English literary texts which were in circulation in England in the period before Chaucer. Its texts provide important information about English dialects at an early stage (the 1330s)." The manuscript is housed in the National Library of Scotland, which has put a number of its holdings online.

One of the poems is referred to as the Auchinleck Paternoster. It's about the prayer that begins "Pater noster, qui es in caelis..." and not about the "paternoster" string of beads, which is why I say it's a bit off topic. But I find the poem utterly charming and wanted to share a bit of it. Here are the first few stanzas, with a rough translation (though I actually find it pretty readable as it stands):

Of alle the clerkes vnder sonne,
ther nis non of hem that conne
A beter oreisoun, iwis,
thanne the Pater noster is.
thus seggey thise clerkes wise
that mochel connen of clergise.

("Of all the clerics under the sun, there is none of them that knows a better orison [prayer], I'm sure, than the Pater Noster. Thus say these wise clerks that know much of what the clergy is supposed to know.")

Seuen oreisouns ther bey inne
that helpe men out of dedli sinne
And yif ye wille a while dwelle,
Al on Englissch ich wille you telle
the skile of hem alle seuene,
With help of Godes might of heuene.

("Seven prayers there are that help men out of deadly sin. And if you will stay awhile, I will tell you in English the skill of them all seven, with the help of God's might of heaven.")

Pater noster, qui es in celis,
that is to segge this:
Oure fader in heuene-riche,
thi name be blessed euere iliche.
this is the ferste oreisoun of seuene.
We clepen oure fader the kyng of heuene,

("Pater noster, qui es in caelis: that is to say this -- Our father in the heavenly kingdom, thy name be blessed everywhere. This is the first prayer of seven: we call our father the king of heaven.")

And yif he houre fader is,
thanne be we hise children, iwis,
And Ihesu is ful of alle godnesse,
With him nis no wikkednesse.
thanne mote we, so mote ich the,
yif we willen hise children be,

("And if he is our father, than we are his children, you know. And Jesus is full of all goodness: with him is no wickedness. So must we be, so I say you must be, if we want to be his children.")

Fonden to liuen in god lif,
Withouten contek, withouten strif,
Withouten pride and enuye,
Coueitise and glotonye.
thanne mowe we seggen, iwis,
that Ihesu Crist oure fader is.

("Yearning to live a good life, without contention or strife, without pride or envy, covetousness or gluttony, then may we say that Jesus Christ is our father.")

Yif we wile be clene isschriue
And in clene lif liue,
thanne mowe we whan we bey of age
Claymen oure fader heritage,
the blisse that lasteth withouten ende.

("If we want to be clean shriven [forgiven], and live a clean life, then may we, when we come of age, claim our father's heritage, the bliss that lasts without end.")

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Beads and the Babe

There are a fair number of medieval images of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus that show rosary beads of one sort or another. I find it mildly amusing (and sweet) that in these pictures, the Infant is often playing with the string of beads -- as in this anonymous 16th-century painting:

Both hands MI00234E12a

Of course this is wildly anachronistic and incongruous, considering that Christian prayer beads didn't exist for several hundred years after Christ's death.

But the pictures are interesting even so. For one thing, they often give us a good look at a string of beads and how it's put together. It's also clear that a lot of the painters are acquainted with real babies and how they love to play with things.

Madonna im Erker


My irreverent sense of humor points out that I haven't yet seen one where the Infant is trying to hang beads over his mother's ear, or chew on them -- both of these being classic baby behavior! -- but of course the Son of God and Savior of the World is much too dignified to do anything like that! :)

From a practical point of view, when I was making my first historical rosaries, I found one of Ambrogio Fossano's Virgin and Child portraits gave me a very good idea of how much "slack" thread to include in the loop of beads.

Child and string

We tend to assume in modern times that beads should be strung quite close with little thread showing, but clearly that's not the fashion for the 15th-century rosary shown here.

Childbeads Fossano

The extra thread makes it quite easy to slide the beads along one by one as each prayer is said, keeping track of one's place.

Here's my string for comparison. (Dyed stone and glass beads, silk thread, wooden end-bead):

Black and white

Monday, June 20, 2005

Skully bits

I gave one of my friends a rosary a few years ago that I'd made of olivewood beads, with small bone skulls as the markers. "Ooooh!," she exclaimed when I gave it to her, "one with skully bits!"

As I mentioned in Death's-Head Devotions a while back, the actual evidence for skulls connected with rosaries is not very strong. However there's a spectacular exception: a 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 carved boxwood skulls open into two halves, and inside each half is carved a miniature religious scene, with a background of iridescent feathers -- a type of work almost unique to the Spanish colonies in America.

Skull Paternoster

We can be fairly sure there were originally more than seven of these skulls because some of the "pairs" of scenes in the two halves of one skull (as currently assembled) don't match. When there is a pair of religious scenes in a "fold-out" bead like this, they generally have something to do with each other, such as one from the Old Testament and one from the New that are seen as having some symbolic connection (such as Jonah and the whale, seen as pre-figuring Christ's resurrection) or they are parts of the same story (such as two scenes that follow one another in Christ's life story).

This is one of the pieces that I most wanted to make a replica of -- without the expensive boxwood carvings, anyway. And I was lucky enough to walk into the local bead store at a time when they had skulls carved from individual peach pits, which I'd never seen before and never have since. They're about an inch tall, and I was able to get them vertically drilled so I could assemble them one above the other like the original.

This took me longer than some of my other projects, first because I had to find just the "right" ring, in-between beads and terminal pendant (all are sterling silver), and also because I'm not very confident of my ability to make passable-looking wire links. But this was one of several projects I was determined to finish and send off to Kalamazoo with my other rosaries, so I got up the nerve to finish it. Here's my version:


I'm not completely satisfied with the way this came out. I used base-metal wire, since it was my first try. It was easy to manipulate, but I need more practice making the links, to make them all smooth, tight and even. I also noticed when I looked again at the original that its links are merely bent into loops, not wrapped to anchor them. Wrapping is more secure, but requires additional space and makes it harder to snug the loops up tight to the beads.

Skulls detail

I do have some silver wire that I bought to do a "final" version of these beads, and at some point, I'll probably take it apart and re-do it.

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


Saturday, June 18, 2005

Children's rosaries

The market seems to have a hard time deciding what it thinks a "children's rosary" ought to look like.

The few historical paintings I've seen with children and rosaries in them are either paintings that (anachronistically of course!) show the Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus on her lap playing with a rosary, or else like this one they show the child with something that basically looks just like an adult's rosary. (This is the Dauphin of France, painted in 1494 by the Master of Moulins.)

While there is no formal age in the Catholic church where a child is given a rosary, it's fairly common to see "children's rosaries" advertised for sale. About half of these I would actually say are more "in honor of" the child than actually for him or her, since they are generally flowery, sentimental items, perhaps given to commemorate the child's baptism. Some of them are fragile, heavily decorated or otherwise clearly more the sort of thing you'd hang on the child's wall rather than give it to her to play with or (horrors!) chew on!


Most of the remainder, sometimes referred to as "toddler rosaries", are made from large wooden beads with a plain cross, and clearly are intended precisely as chewable, playable toys, although of course families do often encourage children to join them in praying the rosary as soon as they're able to understand it. I've seen these in bright primary colors, and more recently, also in uncolored and pastel versions.


The earliest formal occasion where a child may be given a "serious" rosary is often around five to seven. In current practice, this is old enough for the child to at least learn and repeat the prayers along with others, and around age seven the child is usually introduced to the formal sacraments of Reconciliation (formerly known as "Confession") and Communion.

Children this age are often simply given the same sort of rosary one would give an adult. You also see the decorative, "dressy" sort of rosary (perhaps white, sparkly, or embellished), especially as a First Communion gift. I've also seen the so-called miniature rosaries referred to as "children's rosaries," perhaps with the thought that they are better suited to a child's smaller hands. (I suspect the real reason, though, is that they're simply cute!)

One eBay auction says, "The devotion of the rosary has a special connection with children; most of the Marian apparitions are first experienced by children. In many of these apparitions, Mary encourages the children who see her to pray the rosary, and she often appears with rosary beads on her person. A child, perhaps, sees better than we grownups do, and can truly appreciate what is holy."

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Orts II

As I mentioned in Orts, I've begun to suspect that at least a few of the "tenners" often presented as examples of that type are actually remnants from longer rosaries that have broken.

This suspicion was heightened when I began to notice examples like these for sale on the German version of eBay:

put together bits


This roughly translates as "Beautiful one-decade rosary. I bought a 20-year collection from a priest in the Bavarian forest. The contents are super and of course very collectible."

To me these look as though the seller took a lot of old, broken rosary bits and strung them together to make something plausible out of them. There may be ten beads, but in the several of these I saw, there were various more or less random medals, photos, carved wooden things (like the turtle, or whatever it is, on the right) and other objects attached that I think are probably completely irrelevant. I have never seen a genuine rosary that looked anything like these. The right-hand one seems to be strung on wire and doesn't even have ten beads on it.

On the other hand, some of the components look like bits and pieces of the sort of older German rosaries you do see up for sale -- especially the faceted red glass beads in the string on the left, and the wooden beads on some of the other examples whose photos are too poor to reproduce.

I was rather glad in an upside-down sort of way to see that the seller -- who was asking what I thought was a rather steep 35 euros apiece for these "tenners" -- only sold about half of them.I keep trying to decide if I think this is on the borderline of fraudulent selling, and I'm still not sure.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

St. Christopher's purse

It's probably a truism that when you become interested in something, you start seeing it everywhere. That's certainly been true for me with rosaries and paternosters. They turn up in an incredible number of period paintings, especially portraits -- once you start looking for them. I was staring at a photo of a statue not too long ago when I suddenly recognized I was looking at a small accessory I hadn't expected to see. It's a "disk" rosary -- one of the much less common types that uses a string of flat disks as prayer counters, rather than round beads. This is a wooden statue from about 1520, depicting St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child. It's currently in Cologne, in the cathedral treasury. In the close-up photo, take a look at what's hanging from St. Christopher's belt on his right side (the viewer's left), on top of his purse. It's a loop of about ten round, flat disks with holes in the middle on some sort of central string. The disks look as though they might be somewhere between 1/2 inch and an inch in diameter. Since this is a statue, of course, they are displayed nice and flat where we can see them clearly, rather than as jumbled as they would probably be if St. Christopher himself were posing for the photo . Christophers-purse I think this is a disk rosary, because I'm comparing it with this one, one of the relatively rare surviving examples: Boxtape I'm delighted to have found this, because it's only about the third or fourth historical instance I've seen of a rosary of this type.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

O Jerusalem

As I mentioned earlier, having a deadline to send off my rosary display to Kalamazoo meant that I finished a couple of new projects that had been sitting around in bags for some time. (Odd how much faster things get done when you actually sit down and WORK on them!)

A while back, I wanted to make a gift for a friend who writes historical novels, and I thought that a rosary that might have been a medieval "souvenir from the Holy Land" would be something she'd enjoy. So I was searching high and low for some beads made of olive wood, hopefully olive wood that grew in the Israel-Palestine area.

Olive wood beads aren't too easy to find, though Rosary Workshop now sells them online. ) I finally found a business that would sell me as few as 1,000 beads, so I ordered them -- most of the folks I found turn out to be wholesalers and normally their minimum is 3 to 5 thousand. (Also the fact that they're having a war over there can't make doing business any easier.) Cautionary note: I wound up paying about $12 for the beads and $30 for shipping because they were sent by the fastest method -- I didn't think to ask.

They arrived and are indeed quite nice, with attractive wood grain. They also don't have a varnish or finish on them, which is nice because I could do whatever I wanted with them.

For the ones I was using for gifts, I thought I'd dip them in beeswax that was scented with frankincense and myrrh, so I bought the ingredients and started experimenting. I strung the beads on a strong thread (so they are easy to fish out) and tried leaving them for various lengths of time to "soak" -- and got the best results from melting the wax, putting the beads in, and leaving the jar in the oven over the pilot light (and with the oven light on) overnight or longer. The wax solidifies, so it has to be re-melted the next day so you can take the beads out. The beads then need to be individually rubbed with a rough cloth and the bead holes cleaned out with a toothpick to remove excess wax. I'm not sure how well the scent will last.

For the marker beads, I chose natural-colored mother-of-pearl, the same size (8mm) as the olive wood. Even though they're the same size, they are easy to distinguish because they feel different. I don't have any historical reason for using mother-of-pearl: I chose it because I have a Jerusalem souvenir rosary and that's what it uses, and it seemed plausible. I strung the whole thing on silk thread and added a small base-metal Jerusalem cross.

I sent the gift rosary off and it was much appreciated, so I decided to make one for myself as well. This is the one that got made specifically for the Kalamazoo exhibit:


The "ampulla" or little container at the bottom is from Billy and Charlie, which has an excellent selection of medieval-reproduction pewter items. I also asked them if the top of the ampulla could be sealed, and was delighted to find they actually line the neck of the container with pitch, so it really can be sealed in period fashion. I had a small vial of water from the River Jordan, so following their instructions I put the water in, heated the neck of the flask to melt the pitch, then squeezed it flat with pliers. Just to be sure, I folded over the top twice and flattened the folds -- it's a little untidy, but I expect the originals were too.

You can, by the way, get a small number of olive wood beads for somewhere between $2 and $6 if you simply buy an inexpensive olivewood rosary online. A lot of places sell them as modern "Holy Land souvenirs". The ones I've seen are all very shoddy and cheaply constructed, with very lightweight base-metal chain links and beads that are not very well sanded. I'd recommend buying the olivewood beads from Rosary Workshop, which are nicer.

Friday, June 03, 2005

More Mystery Hands

I'm pleased to have solved the first Mystery Hands that I've mentioned here, but they aren't the only ones in my collection.

I'm particularly intrigued by this picture, which graces the cover of my paperback copy of 500 Jahre Rosenkranz, the catalog of the 1975 exhibition in Köln (Cologne) celebrating the 500th anniversary of the rosary.


I can plod, but not skim, through a passage written in German: well enough to translate (with considerable help from a dictionary) a passage that looks interesting, but not well enough to spot a brief note on a specific subject. So if there's a mention in this book somewhere of the source of this cover image, I can't find it. I've looked in a few obvious places like the back of the title page, but with no success so far.

I'm especially intrigued by this image because I was once guilty of asserting that the combination of coral beads with rock-crystal marker beads was "common," and when challenged, I found that I couldn't come up with a good solid example. So I'd love to know who this is, who painted her (at least this certainly looks like a woman to me!), when and where.

Enlightenment welcome :)

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Retirement Home II: Relics

As I mentioned earlier, people are beginning to ask me if I'd like their old things from when they "used to be Catholic" :).

Probably the most startling thing I've acquired this way so far is a couple of relics. I keep these in my rosary teaching collection because a lot of people, even a lot of practicing Catholics, have never seen an actual relic of a saint close up.

Othmar Augustine

Each of these is in its own case, with a little label inside, and they both look like tiny chips of bone. Both have the usual thread ties, visible when the backs of the metal cases are taken off, and unbroken wax seals, which indicate that the relic that's in the case now is the same one that was sealed into the case originally. Judging by the impression of the seal, the one with red threads and seals comes from the Vatican.

Othmar back Augustine back

The first one is a relic of Saint Othmar, whom I confess I'd never heard of. The label says "S. Othmarus A.", the "S" meaning "saint" and the A standing for abbot. He turns out to have been a reforming abbot at the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland in the ninth century. (I rely heavily on my copy of Ramsey Abbey's Book of Saints, which rarely fails me, but there are also good sources online.)


The other relic is even more fascinating. Unlike St. Othmar, this one still has its official relic certificate from Rome.


So who is this? It is labeled "S. Augustinus E. C. D." Goodness knows there are quite a few saints named Augustine, but the initials are a clue. E stands for Episcopus, which means Bishop. C is probably Confessor, which is a kind of all-purpose description for any saint who isn't a martyr because their life is deemed to "confess" or prove their faith. And the D? I am fairly sure it stands for "Doctor."

There are currently 33 saints officially titled "Doctors of the Church," named as such not just because they are saints, but for their writings, which explain and defend Catholic doctrine. The first three Doctors have been venerated in the Eastern Church since around the year 1000; four were declared in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII, the next two in the sixteenth century and all the rest since the 18th.

But there is only one St. Augustine among them: one who is Bishop, Confessor and Doctor. That's St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD). Whatever one thinks of some of the things he said (and I certainly don't agree with all of them), he's definitely one of the great saints of the church.

The document that came with this one is almost as fascinating as the relic. It's an official certificate from the Vatican, numbered 132 and dated 1978 (the same number and date are written next to the seal on the back of the relic inside the case).

Augustine authentication

I understand that different certificates have somewhat different wording. Relics of modern saints can often be authenticated without question as coming from the actual saint, but it's a bit more problematic for older saints, whose relics may not have a continuous provenance or a clear document trail all the way back. (Many relics have been around for generations and their history often doesn't stand up to our modern skepticism and standards of proof.)

So it's not really surprising that this certificate basically (if I'm reading it right) says that these "particles of the bones of St. Augustine E.C.D." are "recognized" ("recognovisse") and that they may be "kept and publicly displayed for the veneration of the faithful" ("retinendi et publicae fidelium venerationem exponendi") -- but that it doesn't say exactly how they are recognized as being from that specific saint.