Friday, February 13, 2009

Rosary or not: the people factor

part 3 of a series

The first essential of doing research on rosaries and paternosters is to be able to identify paternoster beads when we see them. This is especially important when we are looking at medieval paintings, prints, or statues; does a string of beads represent a rosary, or is it simply decorative?

(I have contemplated this question before: see parts 1 and 2 below. I'm gathering these into a series now because I have several more aspects I'd like to write about.)

There are several sets of possible clues. One is how people are interacting with the beads -- how and where they are being worn or held.

For instance, common sense suggests that a loop of beads held in the hands or hanging from an elbow is likely to represent prayer beads, and much less likely to be a belt or a necklace. Here's Prince Friedrich the Wise holding his beads.


(I wrote about these beads here.)

A person holding beads and kneeling, or putting their hands together in a "prayer" pose, is especially likely to be using them to pray with.

Small donors

(Another example here)

Beads attached to a belt are also very likely to represent a paternoster or rosary. Beads hanging from a brooch, pinned to a garment, or wrapped around a wrist are also likely to represent a rosary.

Then there are a few odd cases. Probably my favorite is the gentleman on the far right in The Judgement of Daniel (detail below), a panel painting by the Master of Mariapfarr from Salzburg in about 1500.

Rosary scabbard

I've always wondered whether his beads would go flying if he tried to draw his sword in a hurry. Now that I'm taking a closer look, though, the beads are below the sword's crossguard and are only looped around the scabbard; he'd probably be all right. There's another gentleman with his beads attached almost the same way here.

Rosaries worn around the neck are especially problematical. Today it's usually considered "sacrilegious" (at least in English-speaking cultures) to wear a rosary around your neck. I can't tell you how many people have told me that their Catholic grandmothers were horrified at the idea! But apparently in the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was more common, though I'm told it was still frowned upon by some. (I've written about this here.)

The problem is how to tell the difference between a rosary worn around the neck and a decorative necklace. This takes some serious digging through paintings and portraits of whatever period you're interested in. Necklaces and other secular jewelry made from strings of beads haven't always been the fashion in all centuries or all cultures. There are eras where people simply didn't wear them.

I hope to write more about this later. But to try to answer the question for 15th and 16th century fashion at least, I've started to collect portraits from that period of people wearing something that's clearly a necklace. I want to see what the similarities and differences are. Many of the necklaces made of beads seem to be very short, just at the base of the neck (like what used to be called a "choker").


I also have to mention the woodcut of a friar with "flying" beads here.

The Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus are something of a special case. It is quite common to see the Infant Jesus playing with a string of beads, which the Virgin is often (but not always) wearing around her neck. In most of the cases I've seen, I do think these are rosary beads.

However, a short string of plain red beads worn around the Infant Jesus' neck -- especially if there is a little branch-like thing hanging from it -- is more likely to represent the sort of coral necklace that was often given to babies because it was thought to avert the "evil eye." Compare the one shown toward the end of this article (which I'm sure is a necklace) to this one (which I think is a rosary). And just this week I found an image that has both! This is the Virgin and Child with St. Wolfgang of Ratisbon, a votive picture commissioned about 1490 by Mathias Hierssegker in Austria.

Virgin & child with St. Wolfgang of Ratisbon

Lastly, while I can't point to any examples at the moment, I'd like to investigate the pictures I've seen of women wearing a girdle (i.e. a belt) around their waists which is composed of beads. I am operating mostly on logic rather than data here, but I very much doubt these are rosaries. First, I've never seen one that had any of the "key" characteristics that signal unmistakably "this is a rosary" (more about this another time). Second, to use such a rosary to pray with, you'd have to unhook it from around your waist: I would think that taking off your belt would qualify as "undressing", which a lady would never do in public.

But of course I could be wrong about that ;) I've been wrong before.

If you want to test your powers of detection, take a look at these links.
· German couple holding beads.
· I think this lady has one set of beads tucked into the front of her belt and is holding another in her hands (closeup here).
· Saint Joseph (far left, in yellow) has beads tucked into his belt here.
· Charles the Good, Count of Flanders, in a 1400s portrait.

I think these are all rosaries or paternosters. Do you agree?

Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Rosary or not?
Part 2: From a Spanish galleon


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Trisagion rosary

Here is a rosary many people have never heard of: the Trinitarian or Trisagion rosary. It is quite different from the common modern rosary, and uses a different set of prayers.

The Order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of Captives was founded in France in 1198. Their Rule originally required that one-third of their total income be devoted to purchasing the freedom of Christian captives who had fallen into the hands of slavers or pirates. (More information here and here.)

From an early date, the Trinitarians have used a form of prayer based on the Trisagion (sometimes Trisagium or Triagion, from the Greek “three” + ”holy”). This is a Byzantine prayer in praise of the Holy Trinity: its simplest form is “Holy God, Holy Strong One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.”

The Trisagion rosary (usually called a chaplet) has three groups of nine beads. In reciting the chaplet, each group is preceded by the Trisagion and the Pater Noster. A special prayer is said on each of the nine beads: “To you be praise, glory, and thanksgiving for ever, blessed Trinity. Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of power and might; heaven and earth are full of your glory.” Each group of nine prayers is followed by a Gloria Patri ("Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit..."), and the whole ends with a closing prayer.

As with other rosaries that are special to a particular religious Order, its history is rather cloudy. The first question is how long the Trinitarians have used the Trisagion and its associated prayers. The prayers themselves are quite old, and may well have come to the Trinitarians from Byzantium through their connections in the Middle East. The Trisagion itself can be traced at least as far back as the Council of Chalcedon(451 AD) and perhaps further. The use of these particular prayers by the Trinitarians may very well date back to the beginnings of the Order.

A separate question is when beads began to be used to count these prayers. Reciting a certain number of prayers does not necessarily imply the presence of beads -- prayers can be counted on one's fingers, by moving a peg from one hole to another, and so forth. One possibility, and the one I'd favor as the most likely time for beads to be introduced, might be the 14th or 15th century -- when other rosaries became popular, suggesting the concept of using beads as counters. Another possibility is the 19th or early 20th century, when rosaries of all kinds became an indispensable center of prayer life for many Catholics.

It's clear that the Trisagion rosary is not closely related to any of the common Western European forms. But while the prayers may have come from Byzantium, I am inclined to think that the Trisagion rosary in its current form is not very closely related to Eastern Christian rosaries either.

The Eastern rosary does not have the same connection to the 150 psalms as its Western cousin, but rather looks to the injunction of Jesus to “pray without ceasing.” The prayer used for the Eastern rosary is most often the “Jesus prayer.” It may be said in longer and shorter forms, a common short form being, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The number of prayers is most often 99 or 100 (sometimes 101 or 103).

The physical form of the Eastern rosary (Orthodox and Byzantine traditions) seems more often to be knots in a string, rather than beads. While some Eastern rosaries today are made with beads, others are still knotted, sometimes using special knots with symbolic significance. In the East, the rosary is also more of a monastic practice; it doesn't seem to have experienced any great surge in popularity among lay people (unlike the Western forms).

The Trisagion chaplet is unique, and unlike both the traditional Eastern and Western rosaries in almost every respect. Today it is rather uncommon to see a set of Trisagion beads, but they do turn up on eBay and are featured by some artisan rosary makers.

Or, of course, anyone can make their own ;)

ETA: I've been asked for a complete set of the Trisagion prayers used with these beads. The most complete version I've found is here.