Friday, December 29, 2006

Still more 16th-century crosses

part iii

As I mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I keep my eyes open for photos of interesting 16th- and 17th-century crosses, especially those suitable for paternosters or rosaries. Collecting photos trains my "eye" for what is and isn't appropriate for the period -- and most of what's currently produced is not, since fashions have changed.

In this post, I have photos of two crosses that no one would dream of producing nowadays -- and probably the prices on any like them for sale would be in the tens of thousands of dollars. But we can all look at them and drool, anyway....

I've mentioned before that there are a number of 16th-century pieces -- including chalices, reliquaries and at least one rosary -- that contain elaborate miniature religious scenes carved from boxwood. The truly distinctive feature of this group of carvings, though, is that the scenes have a background of carefully inlaid, iridescent feathers. These are thought to be pieces made in the Spanish domains in the New World, and the featherwork seems to have developed out of Native American artistic tradition.

Here is an entire cross composed of these carvings, overlaid with transparent rock crystal. It is quite stunning, and in excellent condition.


The scenes mostly seem to be from the childhood of Jesus: starting with the Annunciation at the left end of the crossbar, Mary's visit to Elizabeth in the center (though I'm not entirely sure of this one, it fits here logically), and the Nativity on the right side of the crossbar.

Below the crossbar, the next scene seems to be the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple -- though this one is rather cryptic. The clues I'm looking at are the pointed hat on the man at left, and the small pillar or whatever it is below the infant.

Below that is the Flight into Egypt (to escape from King Herod's massacre of all young infants -- which we actually celebrated yesterday, December 28th, as the Feast of Holy Innocents).

I'm not certain what the bottom scene is. Logic would suggest the finding of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, where he was preaching to the elders. At any rate, it resembles some other depictions of this scene, which show the young Jesus standing in a sort of pulpit or under a canopy.

At the very top of the cross, the scene is very clearly the Resurrection -- Jesus climbing out of a horizontal tomb chest.

In the closeup view, you can see details of a few of the scenes, and a slightly better look at the feather background, especially in the scene below at right.


The second "ohmigosh, no one could afford this" cross is another one primarily of rock crystal, and this time, compartments in the crystal hold various relics.

I can't identify any of the relics from this view: if they have labels, they aren't visible, and the photo is not good enough to tell whether lettering is engraved on the oval "frame" around each one. It would be interesting to know what they are. Like the boxwood cross above, this could be a group of relics telling the story of Christ, or it may just be a collection of individual relics of someone's favorite saints.


The third cross here is, on the other hand, something that probably could be reproduced fairly readily by a modern jeweler. It's made of rock crystal (See? there is a theme here), though we can't tell how many pieces or how they are fitted together in this view. They are capped and held together by metal fittings, probably silver and perhaps originally gilded (because silver often is). The center fitting includes a small figure of Christ on the cross.


Rock crystal these days is not all that expensive, so given the motivation, I'd think a cross like this would be quite possible to reproduce for a reasonable price. The labor would be the biggest cost.

The market for historical reproductions of all kinds is lively, and still growing, so perhaps someone will take up this challenge. I'd be happy to see the result.

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Blessings

As I did last year, I'm sharing a portrait of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus with a rosary. Actually, this time the rosary isn't in the hands of either of them, but rather, in the hands of all the women and girls in the group of donors kneeling at the foot of Mary's throne. (You can see it best if you look at the mother of the family in front.)

Mary, infant Jesus, donors with rosaries

This is (somewhat awkwardly) titled "Die Madonna auf der Mondsichel im Hortus conclusus verehrt von einer Stifterfamilie" (Madonna on a Crescent in an Enclosed Garden with Donor Family). It was painted on an oakwood panel sometime in the 1450s, by an anonymous painter known as the "Master of 1456." The delightful blue, starry background was added later. I found it by looking for rosaries in all the color portraits of the Virgin Mary I could find at the Marburg Foto Archive (which is unfortunately not very well indexed).

I've had this picture on my computer "desktop" at work this month, and I like its serene quality. This has been an unusually busy Christmas season, though I expect to be back to something like normal after the Twelve Days of Christmas are done.

To wander a bit off topic -- I wish more people celebrated the Twelve Days, although I realize they are quite out of step in some ways with today's society. (Full disclosure: I'm probably somewhat biased, since my birthday happens to fall on one of the twelve. :)

In an agricultural society, I think the time before Christmas was generally quite busy with preparations for winter: gathering in the last of the harvest, cutting firewood, cooking and preserving and so forth. Correspondingly, the church's season of Advent before Christmas began as -- and to some extent, still is -- a season of preparation and fasting similar to Lent (though less intense).

Christmas Day, then, would therefore have been the beginning of all the winter's feasting, relaxing and generally celebrating. The Twelve Days of Christmas functioned more or less as a post-harvest vacation, once the preparations for winter were done.

In modern times, it seems that our (much less comprehensive) preparations begin right after Hallowe'en (in the USA at least), and the day after Thanksgiving, the celebrations begin. Before, rather than after, Christmas is now the season of parties, visits, church pageants and so forth. Radio stations play "all Christmas music" for a month beforehand.

And then suddenly on the 26th of December, it all disappears.

Well, it doesn't all disappear from my house.

Fortunately I have friends who celebrate Twelfth Night, and it's a tradition I treasure.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 21, 2006

It's beginning to look a lot like.....

First, a news note: There's an interesting discussion going on at the moment about Big Red Rosaries on the Paternosters mailing list (at Yahoo! Groups), based on some new data extracted by a helpful scholar from 16th century inventory records.

* * *

I was recently reminded -- since this is just a few days before Christmas -- that I've meant to go looking and see what was online in the way of Christmas-themed rosaries.

Along with "Italian" and "Mexican" rosaries, and rosaries made in the colors of sports teams (believe me, I don't make these things up!), holidays are a theme that modern rosary makers seem to like. In this, they demonstrate that, just as in earlier centuries, rosaries tend to follow whatever themes are popularly expressed in other personal jewelry of the times.

Some merely re-label any red or green rosary for the occasion as a "Christmas rosary," or make rosaries with red Ave beads and green maker beads, or vice versa.


I've been idly wondering just how the specific combination of red plus green came to signify "Christmas." As with other such color traditions, my first suspicion is that the association was made in the 19th century -- when a good many supposedly "ancient" traditions were invented (like pink for girls and blue for boys, or white wedding dresses).

There are also some interesting rosaries with special features. In a quick pass through eBay, I saw rosaries that come inside a porcelain box shaped like a Christmas ornament (though I suspect it's too heavy to hang on most trees), and several different rosaries with Nativity scenes, or images with the Virgin and Child, on the marker beads or central medallions.


Someone is now apparently making crucifixes and medallions especially designed for Christmas, as well. The ones I've seen are, ummmm, not quite to my taste, but here's an example, in gold colored metal with bits of red and green enamel here and there:

Holly rosary

Along different lines, I rather like a rosary that was recently on eBay, from a seller whose screen name is bashton1. This seller's rosaries are very creative and beautifully made (and priced accordingly!), and this one is an example:


It's unusual to see anything replace the crucifix on a rosary, but to me this silver Nativity medal seems very appropriate.

I must admit that I'm left wondering, a bit irreverently, whether one is supposed to use a "Christmas rosary" only during the Christmas season, or whether it's equally appropriate to pray with a Christmas rosary at Easter, or in the middle of July. We humans sometimes attach a lot of significance to our own notions of what's appropriate.

But I rather think God is glad to receive our prayers whatever the time, place, or occasion.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Islamic rosaries: how early?

islamic rosaries, part iii

As with the Christian rosary, there are a number of conflicting stories about how and when prayer beads began to be used by Muslims.

Islamic scholars derive teaching not only from the Koran, but also from collections of hadith, usually referred to as "traditions." A hadith was originally just an Arabic story. As the stories began to be used more formally, it became common to provide each story with an isnad or lineage. The isnad is the list of who heard this story from whom, reaching back to the original teller of the story, whether the Prophet himself or one of his followers.

The reliability of each hadith, of course, depends on each scholar in the chain and whether they have transmitted the text correctly. As one would expect, modern Islamic scholars can and do differ on whether a particular hadith is authoritative or not.

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, there are certainly hadith in the generally accepted collections that mention the use of loose stones, date-kernels, etc., in counting prayers. At least two of them mention the Prophet himself as recommending counted prayers (though not beads).

I've actually found one somewhat-helpful source online: Studies in Popular Islam: Collection of Papers dealing with the Superstitions and Beliefs of the Common People, by Samuel M. Zwemer, Emeritus Professor of Religion and Christian Missions at Princeton Theological Seminary.

I do use this with caution, since it was published (as you might guess from the title) in 1939, before scholarship about the Middle Ages was really well established.

Zwemer comments that there is evidence that the use of prayer beads in Islam was an innovation introduced centuries after Mohammed. He quotes Goldziher (in his book Vorlesungen ├╝ber den Islam), who says the rosary was not generally adopted until after the third century of the Hegira. "When a rosary was found in the possession of a certain pious saint, Abu-l-Qasim al-Junaid, who died in 297 of the Hegira (910 AD)," says Goldziher, "they attacked him for using it, although he belonged to the best society. 'I cannot give up,' said he, 'a thing that serves to bring me nearer to God.' Abu 'Abdullah Mohammed al-'Abdari, the learned author of Al-Mudkhal, who died as late as 737 AH (1337 AD), mentions the rosary as one of the "strange new practices" in Islam which should not be countenanced."


But most of the references I've found to early Islamic prayer beads look rather doubtful to me.

To briefly mention one, a May 2006 press release (Telegraph, UK) about an excavated shipwreck in Jakarta says that its cargo, which sank sometime close to 970 AD, included "Islamic rosary beads, and a mold to mass-produce small metal tags with three of the 99 names of God."

This would be very interesting if true, since it pre-dates the current earliest evidence for Islam in Malaysia by about 300 years, and suggests Islam could have been brought to Malaysia from China. Unfortunately the cargo is currently tied up in legal disputes and isn't available to scholars. Without more description, it's impossible to say why the finds are identified specifically as Islamic rosaries.

Another mention that causes me to raise my eyebrows is from an article in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 1965, by Sami K. Hamarneh. He is describing a very interesting historical document, a treatise on healing from Spain, by the Arabic author known as Abulcasis (who died in about 1013 AD).

The 19th of the thirty volumes of the treatise is mostly about compounding perfumes, drugs, oils and spices for both medical and cosmetic purposes. One of the chapters on cosmetics has "an elaborate discussion of how to make medicated rosaries, necklaces, and beads of ambergris, musk, camphor, and clove." The recipes mentioned include one for beads of musk and another for cloves macerated in rosewater and held together with gum arabic.

However, again, the author doesn't say why he has made the conceptual leap from beads to "rosaries." I would want to see whether the word "rosaries" (tasbih or subha) is actually mentioned in the Arabic original.

(to be continued)