Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Ring around the collar:

Wearing rosaries, part 4

Every class I talk to about the history of the rosary has someone in it whose Catholic grandmother told them you should NEVER wear a rosary around your neck. It seems the good nuns who ran Catholic religious education in our grandparents' days were quite certain such a thing could only be (gasp!) sacrilegious.

Perhaps the Material Girl and the modern "Goth" culture have reinforced this idea as well. But in the 15th and 16th centuries it appears to have been quite normal and fashionable to wear rosaries around the neck, at least among certain social groups. We've already seen one 17th-century example of a rosary around the neck here, on a small ivory statue of Saint Rose of Lima.

However I'm told that even back then, the practice was officially frowned upon. I suspect this is because it reinforces people's tendency to treat their beads as secular jewelry. The desire to show off one's success, wealth, and good taste has certainly contributed to the impulse to wear a particularly elegant and expensive rosary. It would not be surprising to find that piety became secondary.

At any rate, two of the best examples I've found of rosaries worn around the neck are in portraits of the nobility. Federigo II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, had his portrait painted by Vecellio Tiziano around 1525-30, wearing what clearly seems to be a rosary around his neck. (This portrait is now in the Prado, Madrid.) I've had difficulty finding a good copy of this picture, as both the beads and his doublet are quite dark in color, making the beads very hard to see. I've lightened the detail below for a better view.


The configuration of five decades plus gauds (marker beads) strongly suggests this is intended to represent a rosary rather than a purely decorative necklace -- especially since it's slightly asymmetrical at the joining of the loop, with one gaud next to and slightly above the other, as happens when there are gauds at both the beginning and end of the five decades. Also, below the joining are three extra beads in a straight line and another gaud, as is common in rosaries of the 16th century and later, and there appears to be something small hanging from the end, though I can't make out what it is -- perhaps a small cross.

A few years later, the "Portrait of a Lady in White" by Moretto da Brescia also shows her wearing a necklace that clearly consists of five groups of 10 small gold beads, plus larger gauds. Again, the configuration of five decades plus gauds strongly suggests this is intended to represent a rosary. This was painted around 1540 and is now in the U.S. National Gallery in Washington.


The detail here shows that the rosary seems to end, not in a cross or pendant as one would expect, but with three small beads arranged in a triangle and a white ribbon bow -- although there's also something else (an intial? a small hollow case?) just above the angle where the beads meet. (See this link for more details of this painting.)

We do have evidence that wearing a rosary around the neck was a practice not confined to the wealthy. When we discussed wearing a rosary attached to the belt, I showed you a closeup of the woman on the floor in the foreground here, praying for healing at the shrine of Saint Agilolph:


Just opposite her, however, is this old man, and he's wearing his rosary around his neck:


Some examples are less clear-cut. This drawing of a very short and fashionable man (perhaps a dwarf?) is from around 1380, and the beads he is wearing around his neck may or may not represent a rosary or paternoster. This is a detail from a miniature of Emperor Charles IV and the seven Imperial Electors, from the Armorial de Gelre, a manuscript on heraldry currently in the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels.


Clues that this may be a paternoster include the two large beads next to each other -- just as in Federigo de Gonzaga's portrait -- and the two little beads hanging from the bottom, which is a finishing touch I've seen in a 16th-century woodcut that is clearly a rosary.

Now I am not a jewelry expert, so I could be wrong about this (as well as lots of other things) but it also strikes me that very few of the ordinary decorative necklaces I've seen show two such different sizes of beads in the same string, again suggesting the artist may have drawn them this way (perhaps with the size difference exaggerated) to indicate they are prayer beads. The alternation of groups of small beads with a single large one does suggest a paternoster or rosary of some sort, although the beads are not clearly drawn and there seem to be only about three small ones per group.

Finally, we have the jolly friar below, whose beads are flying out behind him as he hastens somewhere on horseback. I've seen this woodcut several times in different places, but I don't know its original source.


(We won't tell him that the Rule of Saint Francis forbids the friars to ride horses, will we? It would be a shame to spoil his fun.)

posts in this series:

If you've got it, flaunt it
Rosaries on belts
Tying one on
Rubg ariybd tge cikkar
Loops, drapes and dangles
Just hanging around
What did Margaret mean?