Friday, July 29, 2005

Rosaries as art class

I work in the fund-raising office of a Catholic high school for girls, and while ordinarily I don't have much contact with students (I spend most days glued to the computer), I do have occasion to visit the classrooms. Last year one of our art teachers became intrigued by my interest in rosaries and decided that making a rosary would be a good project to introduce students to basic wirework technique.

Rosary hands

I came in and did a "history of the rosary in five minutes" thing, and the students were given wire and let loose on the art department's bead collection.

The results were some lovely, often unconventional, and sometimes downright witty rosaries, many of them made as gifts for family members.


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

What's that -- a head?

Again while looking for something else in the Marburg Foto Archive, I found a very interesting example of a "Gebetsnusse," an intricately carved boxwood "prayer nut" (a literal translation). This particular example is in the Schnutgen-Museum in Köln (Cologne), Germany and is originally from Nürnberg, around 1510-1520.

What I was actually doing in the archive is something I've found very fruitful: find a town with a big cathedral, look under "Sammlungen" (collections) for its "Dommuseum" (cathedral museum) or "Diozesanmuseum" (diocesan museum), go to the folder labeled "Kunstgewerbe" (applied arts) and look at everything under "Schmuck" (which roughly means "decoration" or "jewelry"). Some very interesting and unexpected things turn up.

Anyway, most of the prayer nuts you see illustrated in art books are the most intricate ones, with five or six scenes inside and with the outside intricately carved in a ribbed or interlace pattern. This one's a bit more modest. The outside is shaped into a woman's head, probably representing the Virgin Mary.


Inside are two carved scenes. I am fairly sure that the top scene in this photo, Christ carrying his cross, is inside the front of the head, and the bottom scene, the Crucifixion, is inside the back half. If you try to imagine how this prayer-nut is put together, you will realize that the top scene is actually placed into the front of the head upside-down, so that when the nut is opened like this, both scenes will be right side up.

Head prayer-nut

The bottom of the closed nut is carved with an interlace design like the frame around the inside scenes.


Above the hook, it looks as though some kind of crest or coat of arms is carved within a rather eccentric-shaped German shield. It looks to me like what's on the shield is the top half of a rampant lion -- head and front paws, facing to the left as you look at it. This may be a mark of ownership. The sort of wealthy citizen or noble who would have bought such a prayer-nut was very conscious of family connections, and could certainly have ordered it "customized" in this way. Like many expensive accessories, a custom-made prayer nut like this was worn at least as much a sign of the owner's wealth, success, and good taste as it was for any religious reason.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Permutations & combinations

I vividly remember in high-school math class having to calculate "permutations and combinations" -- that is, given a certain set of objects, how many different ways they could be combined or put in sequence. There's a formula for calculating this, based on how many objects there are and how many are the same, but of course I've long forgotten it. (I could probably go look it up.)

Occasionally I go on a gift-making binge and turn out a dozen or so give-away rosaries for one of the various groups I belong to. With a string of glass 8mm beads selling these days for about $2-3, they aren't very expensive and are fairly quick to do -- most of the work actually goes into making the tassel, since I make my own rather than using the chintzy rayon tassels for sale in craft stores.


These pictures are of a batch I made in January, each one in a different combination of beads and colors. I barely had time to photograph them before they had to be packed up and given away, but I had fun with the project even though it was done under a time deadline.


At least one of the history groups I belong to periodically does gift-basket exchanges, and these rosaries are a much-appreciated basket item. I package them with a short flyer about rosary history and suggestions for how to use the beads. They also make nice "bread-and-butter" gifts -- a small thank-you to someone who hosts an overnight stay or a dinner party, for instance.


My mainstay for stringing these is size F or FF silk perle thread from Gutermann's, which comes in quite a few colors. It goes through the beads nicely and makes good-looking tassels as well. I buy it by the spool since I also use it for other things. The only problem I've had with it is that Gutermann's color descriptions bear little resemblance to reality -- their "dark green" is actually more of a medium-light shade. But if you ignore the descriptions and look at the thread you can still tell what colors you want.


As for beads, I stock up on the basic strings of glass beads once a year or so, and by now I've taught enough classes and acquired enough "odd" strings of beads that I have plenty of material for contrasting gauds (marker beads).


Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Skulls: the inside story part 3

In Skulls: the inside story and in Part 2 a couple of days ago, I introduced an interesting 16th-century paternoster made of skulls and described the tiny scenes carved inside each bead. I've been thinking about what's there and what's not, and how the (presumably) ten skull-beads of the original might have been arranged before some of the parts were lost.

The Last Supper is such a crucial scene in the life of Christ that it's hard to imagine it not being part of a series of scenes from his life. Similarly, I would expect the Crucifixion and the Resurrection to be included. Perhaps these three were removed to be "recycled" in some other context?

Boxwood pendant

As I've mentioned, we also see these little Mexican carvings used in devotional jewelry, like the pendant shown above, and sometimes to decorate church vessels of one sort or another. These scenes in particular are fairly self-explanatory and could well be used alone.

Here's my guess at the missing parts.

As I've hypothesized it, we have the washing of the disciples' feet in 4a, and a logical place for the Last Supper would be 4b.

Skulls 5 and 6 would have the preliminary Passion scenes: Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives, the kiss of Judas, the scourging and the crowning with thorns.

Another scene that might be missing -- it's the only missing one among the five "Sorrowful Mysteries" that are part of the rosary meditation -- is Christ carrying the cross through the streets. That could be 7a, and the Crucifixion (why is that such a hard word to type correctly?) could be 7b.

This would put the Pieta in 8a, and the Resurrection might be in 8b.

This leaves 9a and 9b to account for. I would guess that 9a would be the Ascension, and if that's so, then 9b would be some sort of triumphal final scene.

Looking at the kinds of scenes that have traditionally been included in the "mysteries" meditated on while praying the rosary, this could be any one of several things. Leading candidates include the descent of the Holy Spirit, the coronation of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, and the Last Judgement. In some versions of the rosary, the Last Judgement was the last Mystery until it was replaced in later years by the coronation of Mary, due to increased desire to honor Mary and an increasing belief that she was "assumed" into heaven rather than dying in the normal way.

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


Friday, July 08, 2005


More treasures from the Marburg Foto Archive, though the photos unfortunately are not the absolute best they could be.

I ran across these while looking for something else, and it occurred to me that this is a good example of how the carved scenes inside the "skulls" rosary we've been looking at might look if they were removed from the skulls.

However these four medallions are ivory, rather than wood. They were originally painted in bright colors, as were most medieval ivories. The plain white appearance of so many ivories today comes from natural wear and from over-cleaning in the 19th century, due to that century's preference for "pure" sculptural forms untainted by color.

While not a lot of German is needed to navigate the Marburg archive, there are certain terms that are useful in reading the museum labels, including the names for various materials, such as "Holz" = wood, "Buchsbaum" = boxwood, "Bergkristall" = rock crystal, and the current "Elfenbein." The word "Bein" means "bone, and for a long while, every time I saw "Elfenbein" it irresistably suggested "elf bones." Actually it's elephant bone, that is, ivory.

These medallions do look as though they come from a set, similar to those in the skulls. The first two are scenes of St. George and St. Catherine of Alexandria. St. George has his spear, his dragon (underfoot), his horse, and at left, the princess he's rescuing. St. Catherine is identifiable because she's holding in one arm a pie-shaped segment of a wheel (you can easily see the three spokes and segment of rim), a symbol of her martyrdom.


The other two medallions in the set are incidents from the life of Christ: the Crucifixion at left, and at right the appearance of the Risen Christ to the women at the tomb.


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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Skulls: the inside story part 2

In Skulls: the inside story a few days ago, I introduced an interesting 16th-century paternoster made of skulls and described the tiny scenes carved inside the bottom four beads (of the surviving seven).

Here I'll show you the remaining three beads and talk a bit more about what the overall scheme seems to have been.


Bead #1 (the top): Inside the front half of the skull (left) is the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (the mother of John the Baptist; inside the back half, the museum's description says this is the young Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, but I'm not entirely sure of that.


Bead #2: Front, Mary with the infant Jesus on a donkey on their way to Egypt; back, the Adoration of the Magi (which I admit is rather difficult to recognize).


Bead #3: Front, St. Jerome in the desert (identifiable because he's an old man stripped to the waist, beating his breast with a stone); back, St. Antony of Padue (identifiable because he's holding lilies in one hand and the infant Jesus in the other arm).

Links to the full photo in the Marburg Foto Archive, for those who want to see them:
Bead #1 full photo
Bead #2 full photo
Bead #3 full photo


What we seem to have here is an incomplete version of the life of Christ, with some extra bits added (such as St. Jerome and St. Antony).

In proper order, the scenes would probably go something like this:

1a. Annunciation
1b. Visitation

2a. Nativity
2b. Adoration of the Magi

3a. Flight into Egypt
3b. Jesus in the Temple (if that's what it is)

If this is correct, the first few beads have actually just had their scenes re-arranged a bit. It's not clear to me, by the way, whether a scene currently in the front half of a skull could be transferred into a back half or not. If not, that puts some restrictions on possible original orders we can reconstruct.

Then it starts to get a little disjointed, probably due to the fact that three skulls are missing, which would hold six additional scenes. Here's my first stab at a reconstruction, with some scenes we don't have inside square brackets []:

4a. Footwashing
4b. [Last Supper?]

5a. Mount of Olives
5b. Kiss of Judas

6a. Scourging at the pillar
6b. Crowning with thorns

(If this is correct, #6 is now the only skull assembled as it was originally.)

7a. [?]
7b. [Crucifixion?]

8a. Pieta
8b. [Resurrection?]

9a. [?]
9b. [?]

10a. St. Jerome
10b. St. Antony

(These last two then being favorite saints of the original owner, perhaps.)

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


Sunday, July 03, 2005

Skulls: the inside story

After I posted the note about "Skully bits", a correspondent wrote and asked me whether there were any photos of the tiny carved wooden scenes inside the original string of skulls I was copying.

They're not the greatest of photos, since they're rather old, but yes, there are. Like so much other wonderful stuff, they are in the Marburg Foto Archive, which you've heard me mention often.

A lot of this archive simply consists of the "inventory" photos museums routinely take when they acquire an item, to document its appearance and condition when received. These photos are only as good as the time when they are taken, so many of the older ones (like these) seem badly exposed and poorly focused by today's standards. Also, what we often have online is a photo of the photo, of even lesser quality. But you can still see a lot of useful information.

I've taken the liberty of cropping the originals before posting them here, improving the tonal range and contrast, and sharpening them a bit. In this particular case, about 7/8ths of the original photo is cropped out because it's a photo of the blank cardboard surrounding the inventory photo. But since this cropping also removes the original museum label, I've given the references to the original photos at the end of this article for anyone who needs them.

There are seven skulls surviving, making 14 scenes, and it seems likely that this is not a complete set. A short paternoster string like this one is generally ten beads, so we may be missing three. The scenes do tell a story, with one scene mounted in the front half of the skull (left in these photos) and another in the back half.

These are not quite as well carved as the kind of excruciating detail that we see in the European "prayer nuts" carved with intricate scenes in boxwood around this time. Rather they seem to belong to a group of carved miniatures that were largely created in Mexico, under the Spanish occupation. The clue is that many of these scenes still show their original backing of iridescent feathers, a technique borrowed from native featherwork and turned to a new purpose by native converts to Christianity. Other such wood scenes with feather backing are known from devotional jewelry and mounted on silver pieces such as chalices or reliquaries.

In this article are photos of the four lower beads of the current seven. I'll post the others in a future message and talk a bit more about what's depicted.

For reference, the skulls are about an inch tall, so the area for carving is a bit less than that.


Bead #4 (above): Inside the front half of the skull (left) is a Nativity scene, and in the back half, the Annunciation of the angel to Mary.


Bead #5: Front, the scourging of Christ at the pillar; back, the crowning with thorns.


Bead #6: Front, Jesus in the garden on the Mount of Olives; back, the Pieta (image of Mary holding the dead Christ on her lap).


Bead #7: Front, the betraying kiss of Judas; back, Christ washing the disciples' feet.

Links to the full photo in the Marburg Foto Archive:
Bead #4 full photo
Bead #5 full photo
Bead #6 full photo
Bead #7 full photo

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


Friday, July 01, 2005


As I've mentioned before, one of the connections I keep an eye on to see what's going on in the modern world of rosaries is eBay. I've found it particularly interesting to check the German eBay every couple of weeks, since what's available for sale there tends to be different from what we see on the U.S. eBay site.

It's rather later than the time period I'm generally interested in, but for those whose interests are in the 18th and 19th centuries, there's a small but steady stream of silver filigree rosaries on the market which are sometimes referred to as the "Biedermeyer" style.

Biedermeyer rosary

The Biedermeyer period is roughly 1815-1848 (although loosely as late as 1870) and describes an artistic style popular especially in Germany and Austria after the defeat of Napoleon.

While it's described as "essentially Empire [style] shorn of its ormolu mounts, excessive gilding and aggressive self-importance," it doesn't necessarily look very "plain" to us today. These rosaries tend to be rather ornate by modern standards.

Red detail

These rosaries are strung on cord (rather than chain linked) and are characterized by silver filigree beads -- sometimes all the beads, sometimes just the marker beads. They usually have two filigree crosses, one equal-armed "credo cross" and a terminal cross. The terminal cross is usually set with a painted porcelain crucifix, with varying designs on the reverse side.


The filigree can vary quite a bit in quality. Some of it is intricate and well crafted, but more often it looks machine-made, composed of stamped-out pierced metal pieces rather than actually made from silver wire.

Filigree credo

You'll also see detached bits and pieces of these rosaries for sale separately, especially the crosses. After you've seen a few whole rosaries, the pieces are readily recognizable. Unfortunately they look to me as though they'd be difficult to clean and polish with all the silver detailing, which has usually become tarnished.

Complete rosaries in this style tend to sell for around $100 and up -- and a good one can easily run twice that.