Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Anthony the ordinary

Previous Saint Anthony posts:

Tickling Saint Anthony
More beads for Saint Anthony

Two more Saint Anthonys with paternoster beads today: one from Spain, one from the Netherlands, both from the third quarter of the 15th century.

Nuño Gonsalves painted the St. Vincent Altarpiece in 1467-69 for Lisbon Cathedral (it's now in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga). The deacon Saint Vincent of Zaragoza is one of the patrons of Lisbon. This is a huge, six-paneled piece crammed with faces. The ones in the front rows seem to be saints, Portuguese royalty, and other famous figures, and behind them are the faces of about thirty spectators. (By the way, out of about 60 figures I count exactly two women in this picture: Saint Margaret kneeling in the front of the left central panel, who has a small dragon apparently dancing on her head and is also holding paternoster beads, and another woman behind her, who is thought to be the Infanta Isabel, daughter of King João I.) Saint Vincent appears dressed in red and gold deacons' robes in both of the central panels. Six panels is a bit unusual for an altarpiece, but if there was ever a seventh panel in the middle showing the Virgin and Child or some other scene, it's been lost or hasn't been identified yet.


Many of the figures (especially among the spectators) are thought to be portraits of actual 15th-century people from Lisbon, including the artist and Prince Henry the Navigator, though there's some uncertainty as to exactly who is who. There is more information here.

At any rate, Saint Anthony appears in a curious crouched position in the front of the second panel from the left, called the "Fishermen" panel. He shows next to no distinguishing marks, so my identification of him as Saint Anthony is based on his brown robe (which is apparently a signal meaning "hermit") and on what the book I got it from says. The photo in the book is rather small, so this is the best reproduction I can get, and it's not very good.


About all we can really see in this fuzzy photo is that his beads, too, are wood-colored, and they seem to be rather loosely strung. I can't even be sure of their shape -- they could be disk-shaped, they could be round or oval.

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The real star of this series, however, is Saint Anthony's beads in the Portinari altarpiece, painted by Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482), and now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

In some ways these are the most interesting beads so far, because they are painted in a way that suggests these are real beads that might have been owned by a very ordinary person, painted (more or less) from life, rather than an abstract concept of beads (as the Ghent altarpiece beads seem to be). Here is Saint Anthony, on the left. The figure on the right is Saint Thomas the Apostle; that vertical pole he's holding is a spear, one of his attributes. Saint Anthony is nicely identified by his T-shaped staff and by the bell in his other hand.


Clothing historians often complain that they never get to see much of what ordinary people wore in history, since both the surviving garments and surviving documents such as wills and inventories focus mainly on the clothing of royalty, the Church, and the wealthy, and these are also about the only people who ever get their portraits painted. Well, here we get to see what I think are a very ordinary person's beads, and it's nice to get such a good look at them. (I love books with BIG photos!)


The beads themselves look very real. There are 28 beads that look like they are probably made of bone, shaped like fat rounded disks (rondelles), one or two fatter than the rest. There are seven transparent beads -- a very small one right above the little equal-armed cross, three smallish spheres, two large spheres, and one rondelle. The bead just below the cross might also be transparent and just doesn't look that way because it's against a dark background and shows no highlights or reflections -- or it might be black. Anyway it's another large sphere.

It's very interesting that these beads are so irregular in size and shape. Common sense suggests this could have been quite normal for the beads of a common, not too well-off person. They might have been homemade, or if they were bought, irregular beads would likely be cheaper. And if your purpose is to count prayers and not to show off (more expensive beads were often "conspicuous consumption" pieces) then a few irregularities don't matter.

The transparent beads I would guess to be glass, as the cheapest of the transparent materials available. (Amber and crystal were luxury materials.) Again they don't all match. If you compare the beads with the size of the saint's fingers, they are by modern standards quite large for rosary beads, the biggest nearly an inch across. I have a theory that the reason modern rosary beads are usually only about 1/4 that size is that modern people generally don't display their rosaries like jewelry, but stuff them into a pocket or purse.

What is probably not quite realistic is the bead count. Not counting the marker beads, I see groups of 5 (or 6), 10, 7, 5, and 5, which doesn't match any pattern of prayers I can think of.

Usually when I see bead numbers that don't make sense -- especially when the bead groups don't all have the same number -- I attribute it to artistic license, the artist painting to make a nice picture rather than feeling compelled to reproduce a real model exactly. These beads are otherwise so realistic looking, however, that I am now wondering whether that's a correct assumption, or whether there really were prayer beads like this, or whether perhaps the artist might be painting a real set of beads that has been damaged and imperfectly mended. I'll keep my eyes open now for more evidence on this question.

Or I can just add it to my list of questions for, "If I ever get to heaven, I am going to track down so-and-so and ask....."!

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