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.