Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Crystal gazing

Once in awhile I have time to just go randomly searching through likely places in search of rosaries I haven't seen. Bildindex, the index to the Marburg Foto Archive, for instance, is very poorly indexed, and while rosaries are most commonly filed under "Schmuck" (jewelry), they are sometimes in quite different categories. So a bit of browsing is often worthwhile.

I recently took a look through the Bildindex photos from the Schnutgen Museum in Köln (Cologne, Germany) with just this in mind. I knew this museum had quite a few religious artifacts, since I'd already found a lot of interesting "skull" beads there (which I discussed in this series of posts last fall).(And by the way, the exhibition that just opened this week there is on "Beauty to die for! Old age, the Dance of Death and funereal art from 1500 to the present day".)

Sure enough, when I looked under "Glas" in the materials list, something very interesting turned up:


This is a "Zehner," a rosary (or paternoster) of ten beads, a type often carried by Renaissance men. In typical fashion, it has a cross at one end and something else at the other: in this case, though it's hard to tell from the photo, it looks as though it's just a large fancy metal bead. (My guess would be gilded silver.)

It's filed under "glass" because according to the photo caption, the ten beads are made from painted "Bergkristall" (rock crystal). Natural rock crystal is not glass, of course, but the two are very similar: natural rock crystal is harder than glass, but some pieces that don't show either the natural flaws of rock crystal or the tiny air bubbles common in glass can only be told apart by testing their hardness. Unlike glass, rock crystal was a high-status material, ranking up there with red coral in the social scale, just below gold and silver.

These are old photos and not terribly clear, but as near as I can tell, each "bead" is shaped like a fat lentil or doughnut, with a hole through the center. Each bead seems to be made from two halves, held together by a narrow metal rim. (Imagine the halves of a sliced bagel, ready to spread cream cheese on it.)

In the overall photo above, I think the beads have just been laid out in a row, flat on the table, for the purpose of being photographed. I would expect that if the beads were assembled into a string, the way the owner probably carried them around, they would be threaded through the center holes onto a cord -- but of course if they were photographed that way, you couldn't see the scenes painted on each one very well. Supporting this, when I look at the close-up photos of each individual bead, I don't see anything that would enable them to be attached to each other by their edges.

The beads are nicely graduated in size, so there's no doubt about which order they go in, or which photos are the two sides of the same bead. Not all the paintings are readable, especially the smaller ones, though I don't know how much of this is because of worn paint and how much of it is just the way they were photographed, where certain areas are obscured by glare.

Interestingly, only the two largest beads have scenes directly relating to the Bible; all the others show saints. The largest bead has a very clear Annunciation scene on one side, and on the other a rather cryptic scene -- notes on the museum label indicate the curators weren't quite sure what it is either. It shows a robed male figure with a diamond-shaped, radiant halo, kneeling and holding both the hands of a naked woman. (It's very clearly a woman, which I presume is why their first guess at identification, the baptism of Christ, has been crossed out!) The current label suggests this is the Creation of Eve, and with a bit of imagination you can make out the sleeping figure of Adam at the bottom, with Eve emerging from his side. The sun, moon and stars in the sky also suggest this is a Creation scene.



The next largest bead has the Crucifixion on one side, and on the other, Christ the Savior and what's known in German as "Anna Selbdritt": Saint Anne holding both the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. (Saint Anne is traditionally the name of the Virgin Mary's mother, Christ's grandmother.)



(to be continued...)