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