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