Monday, August 04, 2008

Pretty pictures

Since the early days of this blog, I've made comments from time to time about the attempts people make to create new, medieval-style rosaries based on what we know about beads in the Middle Ages. Trying to make replicas and re-creations is always interesting, and can sometimes teach us a lot about what the historical artifacts were like and how they were made.

Such attempts are, of course, ultimately imperfect, because we aren't in the Middle Ages and don't have a lot of complete, detailed evidence about exactly what medieval paternosters and rosaries were like. Nor are we medieval people, so we are sure to guess wrong at times about how they would have done things. Nor (as I mentioned in Creative Shopping and More Creative Shopping) do we have exactly the same materials available that they did. So all such attempts will involve compromises. But that's part of the challenge, part of the (dare I say) fun. ;)

I fairly often make such medieval-style rosaries as gifts, and since I just finished a batch of them, I thought I'd share some photos, and talk a bit about the decisions I made in making them and why I made them as I did.

I should point out that these are not "data", and I don't think anyone else should necessarily use them as models. They are not medieval, though I think they are reasonable approximations in some ways, with some additional compromises made for the sake of the particular people I'm giving them to.

This one, for instance, I made for someone as a thank-you. She's a professional artist, and since I've seen her work I know she likes these colors. And someone had given me a strand of the dyed, somewhat irregular freshwater pearls that are so common in the bead catalogs these days. The marker beads, by the way, are leftover jasper from my green jasper paternoster.


But.... dyed pearls in the Middle Ages? No, the technology for creating intense, permanent color on pearls was only developed within the last few decades. Pearls can be dyed with fabric dyes, but the color tends to be pale and to fade fairly quickly. And dyeing pearls doesn't seem to have been in fashion in the Middle Ages, perhaps because pearls were so astronomically expensive in the first place (more valuable than diamonds, at least some of the time).

This next one was made for someone who likes (as I do) the combination of fairly dark and saturated blue, red and green. The marker beads are lampworked ovals with gold foil, which does seem to be a style of bead that was made in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, though I have no evidence one way or the other about their use in rosaries.


I'm not very satisfied with the tassel on this one. Tassel-making is my least favorite part of making medieval-style rosaries, and also the most fiddly, expensive and time-consuming, but the ready-made tassels I can find for sale are even more expensive and tend to be made of rayon, which doesn't stand up well to wear. I also haven't studied medieval tassels in enough detail to know much about whether multicolored tassels were in fashion, or if so when or where, or how they were constructed, whether the colors were randomly mixed throughout the strands or in sections, or for that matter what stitches were used to secure them.

It's clear from surviving beads and from paintings that the charms and accessories that were hung from medieval rosaries were not necessarily religious. But the dragonfly charm on this string is quite modern, both in concept and in style. (The recipient likes dragonflies.) The charm is made from cast base metal, colored with a modern resin rather than a true enamel. Also, for some reason dragonflies don't seem to be very frequent as an artistic motif in the Middle Ages. I don't know why, but they don't seem to have attracted much symbolism, either positive (like lions or eagles) or negative (like snakes or foxes).

I'm much happier with this next rosary, which also contains swirled and foiled beads. This is for someone who likes red, gold, and all things Italian. I chose amber-colored glass beads because I made it to go with a particular dress that I hadn't seen yet, and while different amber and yellow hues often look all right together, reds are much more difficult to match.


I'm a bit concerned about this string, because the thread seemed to snag once or twice as I was pulling it through the beads. I felt them with my fingers, and slid the beads back and forth a few times, and didn't find any rough spots, but lampworked beads are made by winding hot glass onto a "mandrel" or rod, and since their holes are not drilled, but formed as the bead is formed, there may be rough spots inside where I can't see them.

By wearing, using and giving medieval-style paternosters, I've become very aware that, as I tell the recipients, silk thread is neither immortal nor unbreakable. Beads threaded on silk will have to be re-threaded, at least once every few years, and perhaps more often if they are worn a lot. The average lifespan seems to be about two years, which is less than I would have thought. I do have some theories about string, which I plan to write about at some point.

More pretty pictures another time ;)