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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