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