Friday, January 25, 2008

Appearing at a rosary conference near you...

I've been meaning to mention for some time that I've been honored with an invitation to speak at a one-day conference on prayer beads in March.

(I will candidly admit that my initial reaction is along the lines of "Lawk a-mercy me: this is none of I!" -- a Mother Goose reference. I am of course tremendously flattered that someone considers me an expert, but me? really? I shall have to make a good effort at it now.)

The conference is on the history and role of prayer beads in different cultures and communities, and it's on 27th March at Leiden University (in the Netherlands). It's sponsored by the Textile Research Centre, a 17-year-old project currently under the wing of the National Museum of Ethnology, but hoping for its own home soon.


This all started when the Centre's Director, Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, who specializes in Near Eastern textiles and dress, started searching for more information for a "small exhibition on prayer beads from around the world" she was planning for this summer. She found this blog, and the Paternoster Row site, which she says "have totally saved me." The exhibit has expanded into a full-fledged intercultural project, and there's no end in sight: the conference is one result.

The list of topics and speakers seems to be fairly firm at this point (it's on the TRCV website), and as you can see, it is very wide-ranging:

Hindu iconography and prayer beads, Dr. Ellen Raven, Leiden University
Tibetan Buddhist prayer beads, Dr. Henk Blezer, Leiden University
Korean shaman prayer beads, Prof. Boudewijn Walraven, Leiden University
Japanese Buddhist prayer beads, Dr. Andreas Marks
Orthodox Christian prayer beads, Dr. Karel Innemée, Leiden University
A history of Catholic rosaries, Ms. Chris Laning, Independent scholar, USA
Prayer beads from medieval and post-medieval excavations in Eindhoven, ca. 1225-1900, Nico Arte, Eindhoven Archeological Centre
Protestant attitudes to prayer beads, Dr. Anneke Mooi, Leiden University
Prayer beads and medieval Arab/Persian sources, Dr. Asghar Seyed-Gohrab, Leiden University
Modern Islamic prayer beads, Mr. Yusuf Alan, Rotterdam
Neo-Pagan prayer beads, Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, TRC, Leiden

How we are going to fit all that into one day I don't know!


I'm particularly interested to see two speakers on the Islamic prayer bead tradition. As readers of this blog know (all seventeen of you :) it's a subject on which very little information seems to be available, especially on its early history. One possible reason seems to be that many of the cultural studies in Islam that would concern themselves with such artifacts are regional rather than pan-Islamic. I look forward to hearing what the speakers have to say.

American that I am, I'm of course particularly excited to be invited to speak in Europe, and since the conference coincides with my Easter break, I will have about ten days before the conference to travel around. Besides sightseeing and museums, I hope to see many historical paternoster beads and take many pictures! Most of the places I'm going will be new to me, including Cologne (Köln), Nuremburg, Regensburg, and possibly Konstanz. I've been in both Amsterdam and Munich once before, but that was thirty-mumble years ago and I hardly remember any of it.

As for the conference, I would of course be delighted to meet anyone there who reads this blog, so do please introduce yourself. You can find more information on the TRC's prayer beads project here, and on the conference itself here, including where to write in order to register.

This is turning out to be a delightful instance of "it's a small world," since I had actually encountered Dr. Vogelsang-Eastwood once before: a good friend of mine has raved about her book on Pharaonic Egyptian clothing, which is excellent. Not the sort of thing you'd expect to combine with an interest in rosaries!


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Beads in the Isenheim altarpiece

Christmas vacation finally gave me a few days when I was actually home during the day on a week day, and fortunately, they were also days when it was neither too hot nor pouring rain... so I've finally been able to get down to the university library. I'm quite thankful that I live less than a mile from an excellent library on one of the University of California campuses, and they have a "Library Associates" membership that lets you take out ten books for two weeks at a time. I've had an Associates card there almost continuously since I finished graduate school there.

On this visit, while looking for a book that wasn't there on the shelf, I happened upon something else: Gothic and Renaissance Altarpieces by Caterina Limantani Virdis and Mari Pietrogiovanna. This is a true feast for the eyes, especially for us old, tired eyes over 40, since it features nice BIG detail pictures, four or five of them for each piece. (And by BIG I mean full-page photos nearly a foot square).

Needless to say, my eyes go straight to the beads :)

As I've come to expect, about half the paintings have rosary or paternoster beads in them somewhere -- held in someone's hand, lying casually on the step below a throne, or hanging from someone's belt. In many cases they are included in the details of the painting that are enlarged to full-page size, and often they are so meticulously painted that it's quite easy to count the beads, see what color thread they are on, and make a good guess about what material they're supposed to be. The paintings are also full of other fascinating little details -- close-up views of locks and keys, stirrups, book covers, candlesticks, fire screens, and a blue and white painted vase containing flowers. Ordinary books with just one photo of the whole painting simply don't show this kind of thing.

The book goes into detail on thirty selected altarpieces, ranging in date from about 1375 to somewhere in the early 1500s, and in location from the Low Countries to France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Some are single paintings, but several consist of elaborate cabinets that may have one set of paintings on the outside doors, which would be displayed on ordinary days, and then on feast days and special occasions the doors or wings would be opened, revealing more paintings on the inside of the wings and in the center.


The first piece I want to share from this book is a panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece, which was originally painted sometime before 1520 for a church in Alsace. The painting is usually attributed to Matthias Grünewald, who is supposed to have produced a large body of paintings mostly in the Rhineland and Alsace, but it's not at all clear who he was, or indeed whether the work of several painters with similar names has become confused.

As an altarpiece, this is unusual in having not just one set of wings, but two, one inside the other. Opening the outer doors reveals four panels showing first the Annunciation, then an intermediate panel with the Virgin Mary and celebrating angels, a Virgin and Child scene, and the Resurrection of Christ. When the inside wings are opened, two paintings from the life of St. Anthony flank an elaborately carved and gilded wooden sculpture of St. Augustine, St. Anthony enthroned and St. Jerome. Here is the altarpiece opened to show the four panels:


The Virgin and Child scene from a bit closer:


And finally, a detail of the beads:


This is only the second (I think) instance I've found where the Infant Jesus is playing with a string of paternoster beads that are not red coral. As I've mentioned in other posts here, quite a few paintings of the Virgin and Child show the infant playing with this very anachronistic accessory, probably because it gives the painter a chance to emphasize the Holy Child's humanity -- anyone who knows babies knows beads are the sort of thing they love to play with (and chew on). Red coral was often given to babies as a good-luck charm or teething toy, since it was thought to avert the "evil eye."

These beads look as though they might be amber, especially as they seem to be a little irregular in size. They are round, and about the same color as the Virgin Mary's hair or the gold clasp at her neckline. There appear to be about fifteen beads, plus one larger element that might be a much larger bead or some sort of medallion -- we can only see the edge of it, as it's falling down behind the Infant's little round stomach. He is holding two of the beads very delicately between his thumbs and index fingers, and both mother and child are smiling.

Amber may range anywhere from transparent to almost completely opaque, and it has always been a favorite material for rosary beads, despite the fact that it is softer and more easily damaged than the harder types of semiprecious stone. As a luxurious and expensive material, it could also provide an opportunity to show off one's wealth and good taste as well as piety. Amber also has a sweet, resinous scent when warmed, and when rubbed briskly with a cloth will attract little bits of lightweight paper or chaff -- a very mysterious phenomenon in the Renaissance, which we now know is due to static electricity.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The "paternoster blade"

Modern historians of the Middle Ages often don't have very nice things to say about the Victorians.

There are reasons for this. Victorian ideas about medieval history still have a lot of influence on most people's image of what the Middle Ages were like. The Victorians are the source of knights in shining armor, peasants dressed in burlap and wallowing in mudpiles, and ladies in tall pointy cone-shaped hats -- all of these being things that have a grain of truth to them, but that were never as extreme or as common as the movies would have you think.

To be fair, 19th-century scholars were operating on much less information than we have now. More sophisticated archaeology techniques have enabled us to recover a lot more data about life in those times, and many long-neglected documents have been discovered, analyzed and published. As I'm fond of saying, while the Middle Ages are long past and haven't changed, our knowledge about the Middle Ages certainly has.

What brought the Victorians to mind was a query on the Paternosters mailing list a few years ago whether any of us had ever heard of a "paternoster blade." The source was George Cameron Stone's A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in all Countries and in all times (NY:NY, Jack Brussel, Publisher, 1961). This was originally published in 1934. It says:

Paternoster Blade. A sword blade pierced with openings so as to answer the purpose of a rosary, and enable the pious owner to count his prayers even in the dark. (Burton Sword 136.)

Now certainly the idea of a pious soldier is not impossible. And while pierced sword blades are not exactly common in history, neither are they that rare; piercing is one of many types of decoration that can be applied to a sword blade, along with grooving and etching.


But there are practicalities involved here, one of which is that from a common sense perspective, no competent sword wielder is going to make a habit of putting his fingers all over his blade. Sword blades are made of steel, and they can and do rust. This is why it's important to keep swords clean and polished, giving rust nowhere to take hold. Even the characters in sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels make a point of cleaning their swords frequently (however clueless they may be about history in other respects!). Fingerprints on a blade are a no-no, because they deposit water, salt, and acid on the blade, all of which promote rust and corrosion of the metal.

This makes holes in a sword blade an unlikely form of prayer counter. Stone, to give him full credit, does cite his source, which is Richard F. Burton's The Book of the Sword. London, 1884. Since that book is long out of copyright and has been reprinted several times, I was able to find the relevant page online. Here's what it shows:


I'm inclined to think that Burton ran across this somewhere and invented an explanation to suit himself, though it's possible that the blade could have even been called a "Paternoster blade" before he saw it. A number of things are called "paternoster" because they're seen as analagous to beads on a string, and certainly the illustration shows rows of dots. To a Victorian observer, it may have seemed likely that the word implied some real connection with prayer.

Here is the key to the basic problem with Victorian scholarship, I think. The Victorian worldview -- especially as embodied in someone like Burton -- was a supremely self-confident one. Victorians expected the world to make sense, and it often didn't occur to them that there could be more than one viewpoint, system of logic, or frame of reference other than their own. Often their educated guesses about the purpose, construction or original form of some artifact are put forward with as much confidence as though they were established fact. Nowadays we would find that unmannerly, or even unscientific. We are much more aware of how little we actually know, and hopefully we're more careful to separate facts that can be observed from opinion and speculation.

The "paternoster blade" is probably an error, at which we can now be amused. But it's also a cautionary tale about scholarship, and as such, is worth remembering.