Black is the true color...
And in this case, black is (apparently) the true color of the rosary I want to discuss.
I had quite a surprise the other day when I finally found a color version of a portrait of the Virgin and Child with rosary beads that I'd been looking for for years. One of the first historical rosaries I made was copied from this picture, which I found in Eithne Wilkins' The Rose-Garden Game.
Thanks to the magic of online searches, and the increasing efforts of museums to put their collections online, all I had to do was to look twice at the photo description, notice that the original painting is in the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands, go to the Rijksmuseum website, and plug in the name of the painter. And voila! (At least, if you have an up-to-date web browser...)
Now it was quite a surprise to me to see the actual color of these beads. In the black and white photo, of course, they are black and white. But here's a slightly closer view, showing that the beads actually do appear to be black.
This is surprising because I have seen quite a few photos of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus with (highly anachronistic) rosary beads. In many cases, like this one, the infant is playing with the beads, as babies love to do. But at least ten out of the 15 paintings of this subject that I have in my file folder have red beads, presumably intended to represent coral. (There are a few more where I only have a black and white photo and can't tell what color they are.) I had begun to think that this might be a general rule.
I was further thrown off track in my interpretation of the black-and-white version by the existence of this very similar portrait, of the same subject and by the same painter, which is in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. These beads definitely are red.
The painter, by the way, is not one of the easier artists to find. His name is Ambrogio Stefani da Fossano (c. 1450-1523), but he is also known as Il Borgognone or Bergognone ("the Burgundian") and more often indexed that way.
Now the Rijksmuseum portrait is online at a fairly low resolution, and I'd want to double-check the original to see if the beads really are black, and also to determine the color of the gauds (marker beads). In the color version they appear to be red, but in the black and white version, they look lighter, and perhaps more like clear glass or rock crystal. Color distortion is certainly a possibility. But all the same, I was surprised to see the Infant Jesus with beads of such an unusual color.
Red may, indeed, be the dominant color of rosary beads in Virgin and Child portraits, and the Rijksmuseum portrait may be an exception. Red coral beads would make sense in a couple of ways: red coral was traditionally given to children as a good-luck charm and ward against the "evil eye," and it's also an expensive, luxury material suitable for exalted beings like the Virgin Mary.
So far I have only looked at a few hundred paintings, not the multiple thousands that an expert would have seen -- but then, I've only been researching this subject for about five years. I'll be interested to see whether the trends I think I see here continue when I've done more research.
More black beads to follow...