Monday, September 11, 2006

Crystal gazing III


More saints, and more mysteries!


One of the problems in identifying saints on these beads is that I can't be sure whether a set of beads like this would repeat the same saint more than once. There are, for instance, two saints named John (7.2 and 2.1) -- which could be the same saint twice, or two different Johns.

(5.1) In the same way, bead 5 is one of three places that have a saint whose name seems to be "MATHEUS", which could either refer to Saint Matthew the Evangelist, or to Saint Matthias (Judas Iscariot's replacement as an apostle). In favor of Matthias on this bead is the fact that he's carrying a halberd.

At any rate, the woman on this bead is clearly Saint Barbara. You can see her tower over at the right-hand edge of the bead.

5.1 TomI06463f09a

(5.2) This side is also fairly clear, with Saint Thomas (a.k.a. "Doubting" Thomas) on the left with a spear, and Saint Helen on the right with the True Cross, which legend says she located in Jerusalem.


(4.1) Here things start to get more difficult. The fact that the smaller beads are more difficult to decipher could simply be due to the difficulties of photography, but it's also possible they may be more worn. If so, this suggests to me that the original owner may have fingered the smaller beads more often, thus perhaps wearing them out sooner. Whether this would mean these were the beads closer to the wearer's belt or the beads at the bottom or "loose" end of the string I can't tell -- you could make a logical argument for either position. Comparison with other straight paternosters, however, suggests most of them have the largest beads at the bottom.

By the way, I owe considerable thanks to the folks who have made suggestions about the identity of some of these "mystery saints," especially those on the medieval-religion list at


I, and several of these good people, all think that the woman on the right on this bead (4.1)is probably Saint Clara (of Assisi). The name looks like hers, and she is carrying what looks like a small lantern with something inside, which would be the monstrance (glass-walled container for the consecrated bread) with which she is supposed to have frightened off the Saracens who were about to attack her convent.

The gentleman on the left is a mystery. The only one of the twelve apostles who seems to be missing from this set is Saint James the Less, but he could either be here or down on bead 1 (one side of which is completely indecipherable).

(4.2) On the left, this appears to be Saint Simon. He is clearly holding a saw (symbol of his martyrdom) and the letters S and M are visible on his ribbon.


It's harder to tell who is on the right. Whoever it is seems to be holding a small, flat cross, and although the curator's notes suggest Saint Jude, I actually do think this might be a woman. The hair is quite long and wavy down the figure's back, and the neckline of the gown appears to be gathered -- which seems to be more characteristic of women than men in this style of art. The letters Y (or V) S A are visible on the ribbon. No popular saint with this letter combination springs to my mind (of course, no sooner do I post this than I will think of one!).


(3.1) I and several other readers agree this is Saint Jude Thaddeus (S . I U D A S) and Saint Agatha (A G A T A). Saint Jude is often shown with a carpenter's square, but here he seems to have a staff. It's possible that the white blob just below the hole in the bead is one of Saint Agatha's cut-off breasts that she is holding -- she is frequently shown holding them cheerfully on a tray in front of her, looking rather like muffins!

JudeAg-e09a AfraI06463f07a

(3.2) On the left here is one of the three "Matthew" labeled saints (S . M A T E U) This does appear to be Saint Matthew the Evangelist because he is holding a book, and he has covered his hands so he is not touching the book directly. This is a gesture of reverence, suggesting this book may represent Matthew's Gospel.

The woman on the right appears to be rather clearly named "Afra" (A F R A) and seems to be tied to something I can't quite make out by a rope around her wrists. I had never heard of her, but apparently she is a martyr from the time of the Emperor Diocletian (ca. 300AD) from Bavaria -- which explains her presence on a German paternoster. According to her biography, she was burned at the stake.


I'm going to skip bead 2 for the moment and go directly to bead 1, the smallest. This bead is clearly either the most difficult to photograph or in the worst shape, because only one of the four saints on it seems to be decipherable. I can't see anything at all useful on side 1, although there's enough lettering visible to suggest it might be more readable if I were holding it and could see past the glare.

1.2 1.1

(1.2) The other side is just a bit better. I can at least make out a few of the letters on the ribbons. The woman on the right might be Saint Agnes (A ? G ?) with a lamb -- though the accidents of photography make the white area in front of her look rather more like a teddy bear to me. On the left, I can make out letters that look like E G (or C) M (or W) but this doesn't suggest anything offhand.


(2.1)This is getting rather long, but I wanted to get to bead 2 because it seems to have a "theme" of its own. On side 1 are the third Matthew ( _ A T H V S) with his "winged man" symbol clearly visible below, and Saint Mark (S. M A R C U _) with the head of his lion down by his feet.

2.1 2.2

(2.2) The second side has a rather clear Luke on the left (S. L U C A S), although if there is a winged ox around anywhere I don't see it. Poor Saint John on the right is nearly blotted out by glare, but the letters S. J O H (or N) are just visible on the ribbon. The curator's notes suggest this is Saint John the Baptist, but with three of the four Evangelists located on this bead, it would make more sense for this to be Saint John the Evangelist.

If so, then perhaps the John on bead 7 might be John the Baptist. I don't see any useful symbols on that bead, but the male figure is standing, partly leaning on a staff, and gesturing widely with a hand holding what looks like a rolled-up piece of paper. The Gospels are more often symbolized by large, heavy books, so perhaps this is not an evangelist.

Having "disposed of" one of the three Matthews by identifying him on bead 5 as Saint Matthias, we are still left with two. I actually do think that Saint Matthew the Evangelist is in this string of beads twice, and here's why.

Whoever designed these beads seems to have been doing several things at once. One was to provide images of a list of generally popular saints, including Barbara, Dorothy, Margaret, and probably all 12 apostles (Matthias replacing Judas). Less common or more regional saints like Afra, perhaps Clara and maybe one or more of the ones we can't see may have been specially requested by the owner. The third "program" was to include a few more general images related to the stories of Creation and salvation, such as the images on the two largest beads.

So perhaps it did not seem odd to the original owner that a few saints might appear twice: once in the list of popular saints and again in their "proper place" as one of the Evangelists.

There's another possible explanation, something I've seen happen to a few of the surviving "Passion" rosaries -- a past curator may have assembled one "complete" item from the bits and pieces of more than one original. When I see a Passion rosary that has the unusual number of 12 decades and duplicates several of the symbols, I strongly suspect that's what happened. In the case of these rock-crystal beads, I think that's far less likely. These are fairly elaborate and expensive, and I would guess that they might have been custom-made. Beads from another set would stand out as different, or would not fit neatly into the sequence of sizes.

This is a unique and fascinating piece -- almost as fascinating as the carved ivory rosary belonging to a Bishop Fugger in Augsburg, which I hope to talk about another time. Unfortunately there are far fewer pictures of that one.