Thursday, August 09, 2007

When pi(ety) R square

(Apologies for the lack of recent posts here. I'm trying to get back to a regular schedule.)


As I've commented before, rosary beads in many eras tend to follow the same fashions as other jewelry of the same time period. I suspect this was actually even more true before the Protestant Reformation, since it seems to have been more common before that time to see a rosary worn as an everyday accessory, much as a modern person might wear a wristwatch or a cell phone. Of course, you would be even more likely to wear a rosary every day if you were a well-off or wealthy person, or if you wanted to show off beads that were particularly costly or precious.

What's interesting here is that in modern times there seems to be something of a time lag in styles. While there are a few decidedly modern rosaries for sale here and there, the overwhelming majority of rosaries are still the styles that were popular in the 1960s: 6-millimeter faceted glass beads, usually round or double-cone shaped, with a chain construction, a flat metal medallion at the joining of the loop, a five-bead "drop" or "tail," and a metal crucifix.

To some extent, the popularity of these faceted beads also shows up in today's jewelry. And if you consult bead catalogs, which carry beads and other supplies for making jewelry, there are still more styles, varieties, finishes, and colors of these small faceted beads than of any other bead type.

But especially with the rise of bead crafting, other types of beads have emerged as new favorites. These include flat cut shapes such as crescents, hearts, squares, diamond shapes and round disks. In the last few years, more and more such shapes have become available, including flat or rounded rings, some with a thread hole along the diameter, so that when they are strung they lie flat, edge to edge. I've also seen flat cutout bird, flower, shell, cross, star, and several varieties of leaf shapes, either cut from natural materials or made from pressed glass. The occasional rosary with star, heart, flower or shell-shaped beads has been showing up for years, but the shape that especially intrigues me at the moment is cubes.


While "cube" rosaries still aren't common, they are beginning to show up in some numbers. At least one of the major "brand name" rosary companies (HMH Regina) now offers a rosary with cube beads.

Cubes come in several styles: some are press-molded glass, with slightly rounded edges and corners. More expensive ones are cut glass, usually with faceted edges, so they're slightly octagonal in cross-section. The edge facets may occupy a greater or lesser proportion of the faces of the cube.


Still others have the eight corners of the cube cut off, making a more rounded shape with 14 facets -- though it's still recognizably a cube in origin.


One of the frustrations of historical research on rosaries is that the data on bead shapes is so spotty. (As is the detail on a lot of other aspects, of course, but this one in particular.) There are basically two sources of information. One is the collection of beads that survive from historical times. Most of these are found loose, with no indication of what they were originally part of, which limits what they can tell us. Still, if beads of certain types did not exist at some past period, they could not have been used for paternoster or rosary beads in that period.

The other source of information is written descriptions. Here's where the major frustration comes in -- we have the words, but exactly what do they mean? Many descriptions come from inventories and wills, which means their main purpose is to explain how many of them someone owns and (often) which ones are bequeathed to whom. They are written for people who have the actual beads in front of them, so they only need to include enough detail to say which is which.

I have yet to see any historical beads described as "cubes." But I've seen several beads described as "square." Are these cubes, or are they flat square or diamond shapes? In a few cases it's clear, as with a famous strand of gold-enameled beads once owned by Louis of Anjou (which I mentioned briefly here). The description, as given by Ronald Lightbown in Medieval European Jewellery, says:

"In 1379-80 Louis of Anjou had a set of twenty-one
gold paternoster beads of very capricious design.
They were small and square, with concave sides;
on one side they were enamelled with chequer-
work like a board for chess, on the other with
chequer-work like a board for tables [checkers?].
To each of their corners was riveted a tiny pearl."

Here it's clear they are flat squares, since they are described as having only two "sides."

As I've mentioned before, it would be nice for my purposes if I could document cubical beads in the Middle Ages, because it would give me one more shape to choose from in making modern beads in medieval styles. But them's the breaks: alas, our ancestors didn't have us in mind when they made their style choices :)

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