Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Bottoms up!

I'm an independent scholar not affiliated with a university, so I'm not always in the mainstream of news about the subjects that I'm interested in. I'm grateful to a member of the Paternosters Yahoo mailing list, who alerted me to a gorgeous and relatively recent book I hadn't seen: Edelsteine, Himmels Schnüre: Rosenkränze und Gebetsketten, a catalog of a 2004 exhibit at the Dommuseum zu Salzburg (Salzburg Cathedral Museum). The title translates as "Precious Stones, Heaven's Cords: Rosaries and Prayer Beads."


The extensive collection of beads in this volume is not, however, from the Cathedral's own resources; it's from the Fredy Bühler Collection, a private collection that has also been exhibited elsewhere.

I'm planning a more comprehensive review of this book, but I wanted to discuss one point in particular.

What I noticed is this: I'm a bit surprised by the way some of their sets of beads have been assembled. Although it doesn't say so in the book (that I could find -- my German is not the best), I would guess that most or all of the sets of beads in the collection have been re-strung at a fairly recent date, so what we are seeing is the collector's view (or perhaps the view of a previous collector or whatever expert was consulted) of what these may have looked like when new.

I wanted to single out the "tenners" as a particular example, because there's a very nice picture in the book of a painting that shows something rather different from the tenners in the collection itself.

One of the major sources of information about the rosary or paternoster beads of past centuries is their appearance in art of the period. Here, for instance, is Christoph Schurff, painted in 1580 with his beads (and two of his best friends ;).


For comparison, here are some of the tenners in the collection:


I've seen quite a few other tenners pictured in paintings or engravings. Some have beads all the same size. Others are graduated in size, and in every case I can think of, those in the paintings always have the bigger beads at the bottom. Here's a close-up of the painting above, showing Mr. Schurff's left hand and his beads in more detail:


There are not a lot of surviving tenners from this time period, and the chances are good that the ones I've seen have also been re-strung or reconstructed at some point, so they may not be in their original arrangement. These other surviving tenners too all seem to have the bigger beads at the bottom, including Bishop Fugger's ivory beads, which I wrote about awhile back.

But every one of the 45 or so tenners in Edelsteine that have beads graduated in size is strung with the biggest beads at the top.

What's going on here?

We are trying to reconstruct tenners from two sources of information, neither of which is entirely reliable. Images in paintings or engravings are subject to artistic license: the artist may or may not have chosen to show exactly what he saw. There are a number of paintings where it seems likely that the image presented is more symbolic than literal: it is painted as something that tells the viewer "these are rosary beads," but the real beads may have been bigger, smaller or different in number than what shows in the art.

And as I've said above, surviving beads, unless they come from a documented archaeological dig (which most do not) have almost certainly been re-strung at least once, and that may or may not be the same way they were strung originally. Unfortunately for us, until fairly recently re-stringing fell into the category of "routine maintenance" and the details of exactly what was done were often not written down.

From the evidence of paintings, I would tend to think that tenners with graduated beads are far more likely to have originally had the biggest beads at the bottom. Why are the beads in this collection strung the other way?

It's possible that the collector had information I don't. It's also possible that the collector or conservator made a single decision at some point that all of the tenners should be strung in the same way, and that that way should be with the biggest beads at the top.

the book

I ordered my copy of this book from the publishers with a bit of help from people who speak German better than I do. (The book is entirely in German, BTW.) It took about eight weeks to arrive and I think I wound up paying about $75 for it, including shipping.