Thursday, April 24, 2008

Holy hats

(Not terribly bead-related, this time, but on my recent trip -- you are going to get tired of hearing me say this -- I was fascinated by a lot of other things I saw as well.)

The Schnütgen Museum in Köln (Cologne, Germany) has some fascinating 15th- and 16th-century wooden figures of saints. I took photos of some of these, especially their hats, because I have friends who are interested in the details of German clothing.

Whether these hats correspond to what ordinary women and men actually wore on their heads, I don't know. Saints and other legendary figures in medieval and Renaissance art are notorious for wearing clothing that bears no relationship to reality. That's especially likely for saints like Mary Magdalene and the Three Wise Men, who were "exotic" characters. Even today, you see Bible illustrations that show people in rather vague, robe-like clothing that says more about the fact that they are Biblical characters than it does about what real people wore in the first century AD.

Here are some details from a carved wood altar panel. These rather crowded altarpieces with many figures seem to have been popular in the late 15th and early 16th century. You really have to stand there and look at them for awhile to appreciate them, because they are so full of detail. Here is an old photo from Bildindex of the one that particularly caught my attention:


This is a Passion Altar by Heinrich Douvermann, carved around 1530. Douvermann worked mostly in Kalkar in the Lower Rhine area, where the Saint Nicholas Church still has one of his pieces.

As is fairly common, this shows three scenes from left to right. The scene on the left is the taking down of Christ's body from the cross. In the center we see the lowering of the body into the tomb, and on the right the closed tomb with the guards sitting around it during the night.

In the scene on the left are three men and four women. The woman collapsing in the front is undoubtedly the Virgin Mary: both here and in the next scene she is the only woman wearing a veil over her head. One of the other women must be Mary Magdalene, since she is specifically mentioned as being present. The same four women (as you can tell by their headgear) appear in the center scene as well.

Here is a closeup of the "holy hats" on the lower two women in the left-hand scene. One has what looks like a gable hood in front, with a back decorated with netting. The other has something that looks like a puffed coif of some kind with a flat square on top.


And a closer view:


I didn't get a good photo of the third, upper woman on the left myself, but Bildindex has a photo of her from a different angle and without the cluttered background.

Like some other altarpieces, this one is actually made up of several pieces carved separately, and it's easier to see details when each piece is taken out and photographed separately. This woman is distinguished by the large roses on either side of her hat:


In the second scene, this same woman (wearing the same hat) appears kneeling in front of the tomb as Christ's body is lowered into it:


And in another photo from Bildindex, the woman with the puffed coif in the second scene is identifiable as Mary Magdalene, since she is holding a large covered cup, clearly meant to reperesent her ointment jar. This isn't visible in the assembled scene because her hands are hidden by a figure in front of her.


Also in the Schnütgen Museum were a couple of saint statues of about the same date, two of which I photographed for their especially interesting headgear.

One is Saint Margaret, identified by the dragon at her feet (which you can't see here). This statue originated in Brussels. Here's the rather amazing confection she's wearing on her head:

Saint Margaret head

The other is Saint Elizabeth. This statue is from the Netherlands, and I'm not completely sure which of the several Saints Elizabeth this is: she appears to be pregnant, which suggests she is the mother of John the Baptist, though in that case I can't figure out why she is holding a book -- that's not usually one of this saint's attributes.


Finally, I was amused by this 15th-century statue of Saint Jerome. Note the dangling tassels of his (very anachronistic) cardinal's hat. I have cats, so I was utterly charmed to see Jerome's lion, which in this case is about the size of a large domestic cat. It's reaching up in very catlike fashion to play with the tassels. Saint Jerome seems to be enjoying it too.



Friday, April 18, 2008

The Holy Who?

Here's another "Living Color" picture from my trip to Europe: I'd seen this painting before in black and white, and was quite happy to be able to see it in person and appreciate the color. Here's a black and white detail of the part I was especially interested in:


The title of this painting in German, "Der Heilige Sippe," is actually rather intriguing. It means "the Holy Kinship" and refers to the Virgin Mary's (legendary) extended family. As Sally Fisher explains in The Square Halo (probably my favorite book on iconography), church fathers in the Middle Ages tried to reconcile the mention in the Gospels of Jesus's "brothers" with their idea that Mary remained a virgin all her life. Their solution was to imagine that Mary's mother Anna had been married three times, each time having a daughter named Mary. The children of those other Marys -- whom we would probably call cousins -- are the "brothers."

The "Holy Kinship" is therefore composed of Anna, her three husbands, Mary and Joseph and the Infant Jesus, together with Mary's two half-sisters and their husbands and children. Quite a crowd. Here's the whole scene, which I was able to see "backstage" at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum (to whom, thanks again!).


(I was thankful to see, by the way, that other photos of this same painting have the same problem this one does: the white veils and white faces tend to "wash out" because the features are very delicately shaded. It's not just my camera this time.)

In this particular painting, the four women toward the top with haloes are the Virgin and Anna (in the center), with the "other" Marys to either side, each with her husband behind her. The Mary on the far left is the mother of the apostles John the Evangelist (with goblet) and James the Greater (with pilgrim's staff). The one on the far right (thanks to Internet sources) I can identify as the mother of the apostles James the Less, Simon and Jude (though I'm not sure which is which here) along with another son, Joseph "the Just."

The tribe is further enlarged here by two more holy families: toward the bottom of the painting on the left is Mary's cousin Saint Elizabeth, her husband Zacharias, and son John the Baptist (pointing to a sacrifical lamb). The child on the right is Saint Servatius, grandson of Elizabeth's brother and identifiable by his key and bishop's staff (with which he is poking a pesky dragon).

In the back row, other than the two uncles on either end, are four men: on the right, Anna's three husbands, with Joachim directly above his grandson Jesus. To the left of Mary is Saint Joseph, and (to arrive at the whole point of this exercise) he is holding a rosary in his right hand.


Joseph is another of those saints who is often shown with a rosary -- to the extent that when I see Saint Joseph now, I automatically look for it. It's not always there, but quite often.

This time it's a rather ordinary rosary, really: a sort of generic series of plain brown beads, probably representing wood. I've seen others like it, and thanks to the extreme closeup view I was able to get this time, I can see pretty clearly just how the artist painted it. It's rather schematic and without a lot of detail: just a few shading strokes and a highlight on each bead, and a very light shadow painted on the wall behind (which is a nice touch). I don't think the numbers of beads are supposed to be precise here: what we see is a group of 10 small beads and a group that looks like 14, unless seven beads are hiding in Joseph's hand (where there's not really room for them).



Monday, April 14, 2008

So how was the workshop?

I've posted pretty pictures, but so far haven't really addressed the main reason I was in Europe last month, namely two days of rosary workshops in Leiden, sponsored by the Textile Research Centre.

The first day was a hands-on session for just a few people on making medieval-style prayer beads. I provided basically the same kits I do when I'm teaching rosary classes at home, and we had great fun assembling them. New this time was a chance to try out a perle-cotton tassel for the "Zehner" kit (for a string of ten large beads), and it seemed to work quite well: not as authentic as silk, but much more affordable. I also saw people having quite a bit of trouble putting together the rosary with disk-shaped counters. I can see I have to experiment a little more with that kit, to make it easier to assemble.

This whole thing had its genesis when Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood started collecting types of prayer beads for a "small" exhibit (her staff now tease her about this), which she thought might run to 25 or so examples. The collection is now at 250-plus sets of beads, especially after several very generous contributions from religious communities. We got to admire a number of the display boards, which were brought over to our seminar site on the back of a bicycle (!) and set up around the room. (I also brought a few more sets of beads with me that I'd promised to contribute to the display, so you'll see their pictures here.)


The second day was the formal conference. From what I could tell, the chief purpose of this gathering was to get the ball rolling, focus a variety of people's attention on prayer beads as something interesting to research, and generate enthusiasm for pursuing such studies further. I think it succeeded splendidly; the seminar room (barely) held about thirty people and was full of conversation at breaks, lunch, and afterward. Quite a wide variety of levels of experience were represented, from a couple of academic-level papers to several interested people for whom this was more or less a first exposure to the topic.


Actually the talk that interested me most was Dr. Niko Arts talking about the beads found in the graves in his recent archeological excavation at Eindhoven, even though he doesn't have a lot of conclusions about them as yet. I hope I can say a bit more about what he's found in another article sometime (only with his permission, of course).

Of less immediate interest to me personally, Tibetan, Korean and Japanese prayer beads were presented at some length. All three traditions have multiple sizes, colors and arrangements of beads for particular purposes, and the TRC now has many examples for its future display. One thing I think was new to most of us who have a Western perspective: we were reminded that there are cultures and belief systems where it is very significant which hand the beads are held in. I don't think I'm the only one who has never even thought to look at depictions of Western beads with this in mind.

Also very interesting was Dr. Ellen Raven from Leiden University, who spoke about the iconography of Hindu prayer beads. This was another topic I think most of us were totally unfamiliar with, so her slides were fascinating. She focused mainly on tracing the appearance of prayer beads on statues of gods and divine beings, such as Agni, the god of fire, shown here in a photo from the Huntingdon Museum archives. This is of a stone sculpture from the 11th century.

Agni with beads

A common stereotype of Hindu gods in art is that they have multiple arms -- the most familiar example being Shiva, who may have as many as six or eight. I was interested to hear that this is something that appears only gradually; many of the earlier surviving statues, like this one, show gods and divine beings with only two arms. Later, more arms are added as the god acquires more attributes, so all of them can be shown at once. One hand may hold a torch, another a string of beads, another a book, still another a water jug, sheaf of grain or whatever is appropriate. This must be very convenient -- Christian saints with only two hands are at a decided disadvantage!

I learned a number of interesting things at this gathering and made some contacts I think I'll be very happy to have, including a couple of folks from the beading-society side of things, who are likely to know more about the history of Venetian beads (for instance) than I could easily lay my hands on. There will likely be more activity in the future, so it will be interesting to see what develops. The TRC is actively looking for a new home, and Dr. Vogelsang is already contemplating a permanent prayer bead exhibit there.



Saturday, April 05, 2008

More living color

I noticed my "travelogue" was getting a bit lengthy, and I still had more to say, so here's the continuation.

I went to Mass on Easter morning in the Kölner Dom (Cologne cathedral), with the Cardinal Archbishop presiding (this being an opportunity that doesn't come along every day!). It was, as one would expect, quite beautiful, and also FREEZING cold. I don't know whether the building simply doesn't have heat (after all, none of them did in the Middle Ages) or whether it simply can't be used at the moment because of current construction. (And I didn't have that essential medieval winter accessory, a brazier, with me ;) My German isn't good enough to follow much of what the Archbishop said, but I believe he did apologize for the cold.

But since this was, after all, mainly a research trip, I spent the afternoon of Easter Sunday in a museum.

I was very happy with my visit to the Schnütgen Museum, which is nicely settled into its new home in another former church (Saint Cecilia), though they are still working on the attached new building that will eventually give them a much expanded display space.

As it is, it is an utterly amazing place. (There's a photo on their web page in the link above.) Dozens of medieval wood sculptures, many rescued in the late 19th century from church attics and basements, sit right out in the open where you can practically walk right up and put your nose against them to see all the details (though no doubt state-of-the-art security alarms would go off if you actually touched them). Since I was there on Easter Sunday afternoon, I very nearly had the entire place to myself -- I think I saw perhaps four or five other visitors in three hours.

Down in the crypt -- again, the very last display room -- I was glad to see the rosary displayed that I had particularly hoped to see. It's the chain of seven skulls from 16th-century Mexico that I discussed in some detail a couple of years ago.

It's really a shame that the museum hasn't published big, gorgeous color pictures of this rosary and all its parts. The only photos I could find when I wanted to talk about this earlier were black and white catalog photos from the Marburg Foto Index (informally known as "bildindex") and they are not very clear. This piece is also featured in the 2006 exhibit catalog Zum Sterben schön : Alter, Totentanz und Sterbekunst von 1500 bis heute (which translates roughly as "Beautiful Death: Age, the Dance of Death, and the Art of Death from 1500 to today"), but again, there's only one photo of the whole string, and not a very large one.

There's more than one reason to wish for big photos. As you'll remember if you read the previous series, each of these skulls opens to reveal two tiny panels, each showing a religious scene carved in boxwood, a very dense wood that allows very fine detail carving. You can see the Marburg photos of a few of these scenes here. (Keep in mind that each skull is perhaps an inch high!) I did not have time before I left to slog through a complete translation of the discussion of these scenes in Zum Sterben schön, but from a quick look at it, I suspect I disagree with some of their conclusions as to what these scenes represent.

The other reason I wanted some better photos is purely artistic. There is an entire genre of these tiny devotional boxwood carvings. One of their outstanding features is that many of these scenes have a distinctive background, painstakingly constructed from bits of iridescent blue feathers. This in fact is one of the clues that leads art historians to conclude that these pieces came originally from Mexico, where native traditions such as featherwork combined with the new arts introduced by the Spanish to produce some astonishing works of art.

Black and white photos just don't convey this adequately:

Skull 01 black and white

But because I was there in person, I was able to get a whole series of photos that let us admire these now in all their glory.

Skulls in color: 2

Skulls in color: 3

Skulls in color: 4

Skulls in color: 5

Edited to add: As a bonus, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently featuring an exhibition of Native American feather work called Radiance from the Rainforest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru, which is well worth looking at, even just the online images.

Pictures from Köln:

In living color
More living color
A Joos van Cleve altarpiece
Details, details


Thursday, April 03, 2008

In living color

I'm home from the trip to Germany and the Netherlands, and it was quite productive... barring the usual mishaps with misplaced luggage, changing time zones, and so forth. But I have lots of pictures to show off, and months worth of interesting paternoster-related bits to write about.

Here's my proof that I was actually there: those are my toes you see in this photo of the cast-metal hole covers in the streets of Köln (which is what you call Cologne, Germany when you're speaking German).

Koeln, cast iron crest and my feet

My first appointment was at the Wallraf-Richarz Museum, which has a splendid collection of medieval and Renaissance paintings. I was able to go "back stage" and take close-up photos of a number of paintings that I'd only seen in black and white -- for example, this one:

Anonymous woman by Bruyn

And now I have this:

Anonymous woman by Bruyn: color

I also found time to stop by the Church of St. Andreas, which turns out to be just a couple of blocks from the Kölner Dom (the Cathedral). Actually it was quite easy to walk everywhere in Köln, since essentially everything I wanted was in the center of town, which is quite compact. I spent a few quiet minutes in the crypt of St. Andreas, where Saint Albertus Magnus is buried in a Roman stone sarcophagus, but my main reason for being there was to look at the Rosary Society altarpiece, which has yet another of those scenes of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus with a (rather anachronistic) string of rosary beads. Unfortunately I couldn't get good pictures, since while the painting is quite large, it's mounted rather high up on a wall and I couldn't get a good angle. I may try again if I have more time on another visit.

Then I was off to Munich for a few days, where I went off in the wrong direction more than once on the excellent, but slightly confusing tram system (though I always got where I was going, in the end). I was able to look at a couple of interesting rosaries backstage at the Bayerischen Nationalmuseum, but I probably spent more time ogling the very large and fascinating collection of royal knicknacks at the Residenz Museum's Schatzkammer.

The Residenz is the former palace of the rulers of Bavaria, and the Schatzkammer is their collection of "treasures," which include lots of gold, jewels, ingenious things carved of amber and rhinoceros horn, silver and so forth. I spent quite a bit of time trying to get the best photos I could of the twenty or so rosaries on display. Many of them date from later than the periods I'm most interested in, so for the most part they are fairly standard rosaries, and they are interesting mostly for the materials they are made of and the medals and accessories that go along with them. Here are a random few beads from one of the displays:


One of the pieces I especially wanted to see was the green emerald rosary I had modeled this one after. It was in the same display case as the beads above, but of course (since I wanted to see it) it was way in the back of the case, making good photography difficult. I was also a bit disappointed to see that it wasn't specially noted or described in any detail, since I think that, if only for sheer ostentation value, a rosary made entirely out of emeralds outshines a lot of the other things in the collection. More than that -- not only was it in the back of the case, it was actually dusty. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Emerald rosary from the Residenz

Back to Köln for Easter weekend, I had a chance to go to the three remaining museums on my list: the Domschatz (Cathedral treasury), the Schnütgen Museum (of which more later) and the former Diocesan Museum, which moved last year into new quarters at the ruined Church of St. Kolumba a few blocks from downtown.

At Kolumba, they are still in the process of moving things from and to storage, so I couldn't make an appointment to see any of their large collection of beads. There were no beads on display either, since this particular museum is now designed as a place for contemplation rather than for historical study, with a lot of open space and about two-thirds modern religous art to one-third historical art. The historical pieces they do have on display are quite spectacular, though, and I was particularly happy to see, in the very last room, another painting that I had only seen in black and white. It's this one, called "Muttergottes in dem Erker" ("the Mother of God in a corner").

Erker black and white

I am not a betting person, but I had made a bet with myself that the beads in this painting would turn out to be red: and sure enough, they are.

Erker in color


In color, this painting strikes me as an extraordinarily tender and lovely scene.

Pictures from Köln:

In living color
More living color
A Joos van Cleve altarpiece
Details, details

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