Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Light in the darkness

I'm a bit behind on my regular updates here, so I don't think I've mentioned yet that I am now the proud (?) owner of a piece of 1960s religious art for which I have a sneaking fondness: a glow-in-the-dark rosary.

I'm not sure whether this particular style is still available new; I would guess that it's not as popular as when it was first introduced. I rarely see anyone actually using one for prayer. For sheer rock-bottom cheapness, it's been superseded by another type, where the beads are molded directly onto a connecting string:

Collectors, however, still like the "classic" chain-structured form like the one I bought, and rosaries like that one sell very well on eBay for close to the same price as new rosaries.

The commercial use of chemicals that absorb energy in daylight and glow dimly in the dark afterwards dates back at least to the 1930s. Zinc sulfide with minute amounts of copper added was one of the first such compounds discovered, and since it's quite cheap and easy to make, it begins to show up in specialized markets as early as 1947. Unlike the glowing hands of some wristwatches (which require no "recharging") no radioactive materials are involved -- it's a purely chemical process, and even relatively nontoxic -- the FDA allows small amounts to be used for Halloween makeup.

Glow-in-the-dark plastic hit the consumer market in the late 1950s and early 1960s and became an instantly popular gimmick for all kinds of uses, ranging from practical (light switches) to ridiculous (fright wigs). Zinc sulfide produces a rather dim greenish glow -- you really have to be in almost complete darkness to see it. It also doesn't last very long, glowing for anywhere between fifteen minutes and an hour or two. Other "phosphors" (as the glowing substances are called) discovered more recently, such as strontium aluminate and various cadmium compounds, will glow for several hours. Newer compounds may also be brighter and glow in different colors.

The reason to own a glow-in-the-dark rosary somewhat escapes me. I'm sure it is rationalized as "you can find it in a dark bedroom," and perhaps others do wake up from nightmares at 2:00AM and reach for the rosary more often than I do.

But I suspect its real appeal is the pleasure (usually an innocent one) of having a rosary in a new and fashionable material. A somewhat childish pleasure, I admit, but did not Jesus say we must become like little children?


Monday, February 20, 2006

Disk drive

One of the lesser-known types of medieval rosary is the type that uses flat round disks or rings, rather than beads, as its prayer counters. I've been fascinated with these for a while now, since it's been something of a challenge to figure out how they are made.

This is the subject of the next page to go up on my website at Paternoster-Row, but briefly, it seems that the disks are threaded through their center holes, like beads, onto a string or ribbon, which is then tied or sewed down between each disk to some kind of sturdier backing.

I've seen these in a variety of sizes: there are several surviving examples, probably from the 19th century, of a bracelet-sized version in Germany and Austria, including this one:

There's also a larger version that can be seen in this painting (both this and the above are from REALonline). It's what the lady in the back pew is holding:

These are some of the donors (shown in a side wing) of the Altarpiece of Saint George by Herlin Friedrich, from 1462. It's quite common, by the way, in paintings like this that include donor portraits, to see all the women and girls of the family grouped on one side -- usually the right as we face the painting, as here -- and all the men and boys over on the left.

There's also some sort of similar disk-thing -- it's not carved with a lot of detail -- on a statue of Saint Christopher I discussed a while back. And Saint Jerome is shown holding a medium-sized example down by his knees in this 1440s Italian painting, though you can't see the detail at this scale.

So you might say I'm on a "drive" to collect more images. (You can stop groaning now.) The news is that I've found three more examples in the last couple of months, so the range of dates and places is getting a bit broader.

The first discovery is this painting by the Master of the Albrecht Altars in Vienna:

This shows the presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem (required for all first-born sons). Saint Joseph is standing in the back, holding a betschnur (literally "prayer-string") or disk-rosary. What's particularly interesting is that this painting dates to 1438-1440, considerably before the first Rosary Societies and the "modern" rosary became popular a generation or so later.

Unfortunately the only enlarged detail of this painting that they've chosen to post online is of a corner of the altar, a candlestick, and the Infant's and part of the priest's heads -- not of Saint Joseph with the betschnur.

The second discovery is one I can't show you, because while I do have a detail photo, it was sent to me privately and I had to agree not to post it. And the image of the original painting at the Web Gallery of Art (another terrific website, BTW) doesn't show the relevant side panel. Saint Francis in ecstasy (the WGA image) is the main panel of the painting, but you will have to imagine that standing on St. Francis's right (our left as we face him) is a portrait of another friar, Blessed Rainer of Borgo San Sepulcro, who is holding in his hand a disk rosary very much like Saint Joseph's above. If you ever see me in person, I can show you the closeup. The painting itself, by Sassetta, is in the rather small and out-of-the-way museum at the Villa I Tatti in Settignano, Italy (run by Harvard University).

And just this past week, I took a closer look at this silver panel from an altarpiece in Salzburg -- it's from the Mariapfarr (Church of Saint Mary) and it's dated in the catalog to 1443 (on what evidence I'm not sure).

I am not sure who she is, but the woman on the far left is holding a disk-rosary. (She has a halo, so she must be a saint.) The peculiar spiral column she's embracing with her other arm seems to be a very large, burning candle -- rather too close to everyone's clothes, in my opinion! -- and we can just see Saint Joseph's head peeping over the women's shoulders in the background.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Rosary for the Dead

Roman Catholics who feel nostalgic for the way religion was practiced before the Second Vatican Council sometimes lament that "no one offers things up for the souls in Purgatory any more."

It's probably true that the ordinary Catholic-on-the-street doesn't pray for the dead as much as before. Some of the reasons, however, are good ones. Catholics no longer feel as much like a beleaguered and persecuted minority, and correspondingly, have largely emerged from a supportive but rather suffocating cultural ghetto, and now feel more part of society at large. More stress has also been laid on God's love and mercy in recent years, rendering Purgatory less frightening. And modern psychology encourages people to question the need for unnecessary personal suffering rather than passively accepting it and "offering it up."

But if you believe that prayer for others is a good thing, there is certainly no shortage of people who need prayer.

Prayers for the dead have taken many forms over the centuries, but I was rather surprised to find that the formal, 4-decade "Rosary for the Dead" dates back only to the middle of the 1800s. According to the Basilian Fathers' website, it was invented by Abbé Serre of the Chapel of the Hôtel Dieu at Nismes, France, and promoted by the Archconfraternity of Notre Dame du Suffrage.

This rosary (or more properly, chaplet) consists of 4 groups of 10 small beads: according to some traditions, these are in memory of the 40 hours Christ is thought to have spent in "Limbo" between the crucifixion and the resurrection. (A recent pronouncement from the Vatican noted that "Limbo," the resting place of the good but unbaptized dead, is now regarded as an obsolete attempt to explain God's mercy.) Between these are larger "gauds" or marker beads. In its original form, the chaplet had a medal of the Archconfraternity, representing the souls in Purgatory.

The chaplet begins with the psalm "De Profundis" (Psalm 129 or 130, depending on the numbering system). (It's the one that begins, "Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee: O Lord, hear my voice.")

On the large beads is said "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and may eternal light shine upon them." On the small beads is said, “Sweet Heart of Mary, be my salvation.” Other prayers are sometimes added.

Like anything else that isn't quite standard, you sometimes find this four-decade rosary being sold on auction sites as "RARE!" or "UNIQUE." It's become less common in the last few decades, but it's still around, and if you want to add one to your rosary collection it shouldn't cost more than any other rosary of similar date.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Just hanging around...

Wearing rosaries, part 6

Last month I began writing a series of articles about how to wear a rosary or paternoster with medieval clothing. As I mentioned toward the end of that series, I have a few more notes and pictures that there simply wasn't room for in that month's postings.

First, a note that while you don't have to be the Virgin Mary or the Infant Jesus to wear a rosary around your neck, it sure helps. The overwhelming majority of pictures showing a rosary as a necklace are of one or the other of these two figures. An example:

This is a detail of the famous altarpiece of the Rosary Society from the Church of St. Andreas, in Köln (Cologne, Germany), by the Master of St. Severin, painted around 1510.

Showing the Infant Jesus playing with his mother's beads is a fairly obvious, and no doubt affectionate, gesture for anyone who's ever observed how much babies love to play with things like this :)

I had some examples of different ways rosaries could be carried on a belt, and I've found a couple of better examples. Here is a rather clearer example of a rosary looped over the belt and then passed through a loop of itself:

Golden 7003920 Looped

This is a detail of Saint Anne (mother of the Virgin Mary) about to meet her returning husband at the "Golden Gate" of Jerusalem. It's an Italian painting from the South Tyrol, painted about 1514 by an unknown artist.

Next, a relatively clear picture of a rosary just tucked into a belt and dangling:

Belt 7002381 Over

This is from a portrait of a pilgrim saint named Wendelin, again by an anonymous artist, this time from Austria and painted around 1490-1500 for the Salzburg Castle chapel (if I'm decoding the German description correctly).

You can see the entire portrait here, a closeup of his shoes here, and his dog here. Clearly he considers his dog is part of the essential pilgrim's equipment, along with his hat and staff!

Finally, yet another detail from a portrait full of intriguing women that I've mentioned before. Here is a woman carrying what is usually a man's type of rosary, a straight string of beads with tassels at both ends. This is only the second time I've seen this type of rosary on a woman. She's wearing it the same way a man would, over her belt with both ends hanging down.


The painting is by the "Master of the Saint Lucy Legend" around 1488 and is now in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. You can read a full description at the Web Gallery of Art, a splendid picture source.

This saint is way over at the left margin of the painting, and I think this is Saint Apollonia, who was martryed by having all her "beautiful" teeth pulled out (hence the pincers she is carrying). Just to confuse things, there's another woman with pincers over at the right side of the painting, and she also has a rosary (though hers is in her hand and we can't see much of it) -- but her pincers are holding some sort of object, perhaps a stone. I don't know who she is at all.

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?


Saturday, February 04, 2006

Rosary workshop

I've been meaning for some time to mention the nice folks over at Rosary Workshop. This is probably my favorite place to look for interesting crosses and medals. I've used several in my rosary replicas, for instance the one I call my Saint Hedwig rosary. The cross on my Alanus de Rupe rosary is also one of theirs, as is the cross on my remodeled Zehner.

This small mail-order business is run by a parish craft guild from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Spokesperson (and, I gather, ringleader!) Margot Carter-Blair has been a liturgical artist for years, designing religious greeting cards, church hangings and vestments, and now rosaries.

Their main product is a changing repertoire of very nice, very modern rosaries, using a wide variety of glass, semiprecious stone, artisan and wood beads. Most are strung on modern "flex-wire," which is virtually unbreakable, but a bit stiff and rather slippery (and it looks rather different from historical styles). Prices for a 5-decade rosary seem to range from about $140 to well over $300, depending on materials -- this is actually about the normal retail price range for a hand-made rosary.

They also sell a limited selection of loose beads, and a wide variety of crosses, crucifixes, and medals. A few are from other artisans, but most are custom-cast from old original pieces. Most are available in either bronze or sterling silver, and most prices range from under $10 to about $50, depending on size and materials (some of the newer and larger ones are more).

A lot of their things are 19th and 20th century, and even more are undated, which usually means that's also when they're from. But they do have quite a few pieces that either come from earlier centuries or look plausibly "medieval":

Last but not least, their customer service is excellent. Nice people all around.