Monday, December 10, 2007

The Bishop's beads: a celestial sphere

(Bishop Jakob, part 2)

In The beads of Bishop Jakob, I started to discuss an ivory paternoster that belonged to the early 17th-century bishop of Konstanz, Jakob Fugger. [Was that really two months ago? Gack.] The photos I have of this aren't very good, but I'm going to explore whatever details we can see in them. If anyone knows of better pictures or publications about these beads, I'd really like to know about them.

First, I'd been searching for a portrait of the bishop himself, and finally found one when it occurred to me to look at Wikimedia Commons, a rapidly expanding source of images that I don't think I've mentioned before. A search on his name didn't turn up anything (for some reason) but here he is, filed under "Bishops of Konstanz":

If you click on the link at Wikimedia Commons that magnifies the picture, it says in the corner that this was painted in 1598 and that our fellow was 30 years old at the time.

So. Back to the beads.

When I showed a slide of these beads in a paper I gave last spring, someone pointed out something I hadn't mentioned: unlike most of the other paternosters I was using as examples, but like a lot of later ones, this one is constructed with wire links, rather than as beads threaded on a cord. This construction seems to have come into fashion in the very early 17th century, based on the few other examples I've seen. It's almost universal in modern rosaries (except those that are threaded on modern flexible bead wire, which I'll talk about someday I promise).


Wire chain construction is generally more resistant to breaking. My experience with wearing threaded rosaries is that even when the thread is very strong silk, it's still rather prone to wear and tear, and also will snap if it catches on something. The disadvantage of wire links is that a wire chain is prone to kinking when it's twisted, and can be tricky to untangle; and of course, you also can't slide the beads along the thread as you count them but instead must move your fingers along the entire chain of beads.

Bishop Jakob's beads are graduated in size, something I was asked about the other day. To the extent that I can generalize from what beads look like in paintings, I've only seen this on short straight strings or "tenners" like this one. Prayer beads in loop form are usually shown with all beads approximately the same size (except for the marker beads). When a tenner has graduated bead sizes, as here, the end with bigger beads always seems to be the bottom, the end furthest away from the wearer's body.

In here somewhere I should also mention that I'm not convinced we have this entirely in its original state. As we currently have it, there is a ring, a cross, and eleven beads, probably representing ten Aves and one Pater Noster. This is quite a logical arrangement and seems complete for prayer purposes. However, there is a wire loop at the bottom of the eleventh bead, which is now bent over, but which could have originally connected to something else. It seems unlikely that more beads were involved, but there might very well have been a tassel, or a medal or other ornament.

There are a grand total of four photos of this paternoster in the Marburg Foto Index. Three show the entire string, and two of these seem to have been taken from the same side of the piece, probably at different times. The remaining overview seems to be an attempt to show the other side, although some of the beads appear to be turned through perhaps 120 degrees, some more and some apparently not at all.

The fourth photo is a close-up of just the two largest beads. This is the only photo big enough that I can read any of the lettering, and even so I can't really be certain exactly what is going on with the motifs, though I can make some guesses.


The museum label on the photos says they are engraved with "Szenen aus der Schöpfungsgeschichte" (scenes from the Creation Story). From what I can see of the two largest beads, bead #11 (the biggest) seems to be a celestial sphere, and bead #10 next to it, a terrestrial sphere. This could represent the first words of the Biblical account, which starts, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

On the celestial sphere, you can see the two bands crossing each other around the middle that represent the celestial equator and the plane of the ecliptic, and the rest of the surface seems to be covered with drawings representing constellations (and dots that might represent individual stars). In the center of the view we can see a very well drawn ship, representing Argo Navis (the Ship, no longer recognized as a constellation). To its left is a dog, labeled CANIS MAJOR, and to the right is the outline of Centaurus, the Centaur. Above the Ship and Centaur is part of Hydra, the snake, and the little bird that appears to be perched on the snake's back must be Corvus (the Crow). These are all Southern Hemisphere constellations, so I had to look them up -- I'm a bit more familiar with northern ones. These appear backwards from what's shown on modern star maps, because unlike most modern maps, we're seeing them as though we were on the outside of the "heavenly sphere." (Modern star maps show our actual view, from the inside.)


There is undoubtedly a lot more detail here -- these photos show faint tracings of lettering here and there, though often not enough to be readable. Apparently the beads were engraved, and then the engraved lines were filled with ink. Where the beads have been handled a lot, the ink has rubbed off. Probably some of the engraving has also been worn down, but I'd expect to be able to see a lot more of it if I had the actual beads in front of me, rather than a photo.

What I can read on the "celestial" bead is the CANIS MAJOR label and a few bits around the bead's "south pole" where there is still ink. A scribed circle is labeled CIRCVLVS ANTARCTICVS for the Antarctic Circle, and to the left are letters just outside that circle that I think say DEVS CREAVIT TERRAM (the two R's are fairly clear, the rest more fragmentary, but "terram" would fit what's there).

Also, upside down from the CIRCVLVS inscription, just to the right of the bead's central hole, are two short lines that I think say something like SOLST ITIORUM (with a little imaginative reconstruction). It appears to be labeling a particular point on the circle, or an inscribed line that runs north from that point to perhaps the "north pole." I can't see enough of what is in that area to tell much more than that. None of the other views of this bead are clear enough to show any lettering as more than a series of fuzzy dots. Hopefully someone who knows more astronomy than I do can explain this to me. (Whatever I used to know is rather rusty; I've had to look up most of this constellation stuff as I went along.)

(to be continued)

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