Thursday, June 19, 2008

Let a thousand flowers bloom

I was reminded the other day that I'd promised to look into the topic of "lampworked" glass beads, and the fact that I just made a gift rosary this month out of Italian "millefiori" beads meant that this was the month I finally went and looked at my books.

It's clear from a number of sources that glass was a popular medium for paternoster or rosary beads in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. While beads of gold, silver, amber, coral and semi-precious stones are valuable enough to be mentioned in the wills and inventories of the wealthy, there were hundreds and thousands of humbler folk who aspired to nothing more precious than beads of wood, bone, or glass to count their prayers. Few of those survive, and there is less written about them, so finding anything about them takes some digging.

Making glass beads by hand uses very simple technology and attracts many people who are looking for an interesting craft project, especially in more recent years when the basic equipment and the glass for making such beads have become easy to find and affordable. You can buy yourself a torch, some basic tools, protective goggles and enough glass rods to get you started for a couple of hundred dollars or less. If you're not intimidated by having a small blowtorch burning within inches of your fingers, you can produce some remarkably pretty beads with a bit of practice, including many that you wouldn't be able to find for sale. And if you're interested in historical glass, you can make good replicas of beads worn by the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and similar peoples. They make impressive gifts, too.

Naturally, the question I'm most interested in is what types of lampworked beads were used in historical rosaries. I knew I had seen a few instances of glass beads with such designs, and this week I went back to look again at the photos and see what I could discover.

The exhibition catalog 500 Jahre Rosenkranz: 1475-1975: Kunst und Frömmigkeit im Spätmittelalter und ihr Weiterleben, from a 1975 exhibition in Köln (Cologne, Germany) has two examples of rosaries made from lampworked beads. One is shown in a fairly good, clear picture, although it's in black and white:


These beads are described as "blue glass, decorated with yellow stripes (Murano)." They are tentatively dated to the 17th century (with a question mark!) and are in the Diocesan Museum collection in Köln. All the glass beads in this rosary are of the same type; the marker beads are slightly larger and each of them is set off by small bone beads and rather clumsy bone disks or caps on either side. Also included in this rosary are carved bone "Five Wounds" markers: two small arms ending in hands, two feet, a heart (?) and a skull.

The smaller beads seem to be arranged in six groups of nine (?) beads (though the last group now has only six). Attached to the loop is a short straight string with a marker bead, three small beads and another marker, as on a modern rosary. This is rather an odd number, and my guess is that, like many old rosaries, this has been re-strung at some point, perhaps in an attempt to make it look more "modern." Or it could be simply missing a few beads, which not rare either.

Iclear from looking at these beads that the decoration is not just a simple "stripe." However, once you are reasonably adept at making lampworked beads, it's not too difficult to do.

The first step is to melt a thin rod of a contrasting colored glass and make a series of loops back and forth on the surface of the bead:


A metal pick can then be used to "drag" the centers of these loops downward.


Repeated around the bead, this makes a nice looped or "feathered" pattern.


The middle bead in the illustration above starts with a series of straight red stripes instead of continuous loops, and the other two beads illustrate open loops (top) and closed loops with a yellow filling (bottom).

Using different stripes and dragging some parts up and some parts down can produce some very complex-looking zigzagged and "feathered" beads, but it's really just surface decoration and simple to do.


So we have evidence of beads with at least this simple style of decoration being used for a paternoster. They were likely more expensive than ordinary glass beads because of the additional labor -- certainly today these beads aren't cheap unless you make them yourself or know someone who makes their own.

Lampworked beads are something I don't know as much about as I'd like to. I have books on Egyptian and medieval glass, but there are very few beads in them and they're rather earlier than I'm really interested in. When in the Middle Ages did beads with this looped-and-dragged technique become common in Europe? Who made them and where? How far did they travel in trade? Who could afford them? I'd welcome some book recommendations if anyone knows of good sources.

More about "complex" glass beads another time.

Labels: ,