Monday, May 17, 2010

Edelsteine: Himmels Schnure

A book worth breaking my no-book-buying-because-I'm-poor moratorium for doesn't come along every day. But this one definitely qualifies.

Edelsteine: cover of exhibition catalog

I was alerted to this book by Elizabeth Alles from the Paternosters mailing list at Yahoo -- one of the many reasons I've been glad I established that list a few years ago. It has full color photos of more than 500 small and large rosaries of many different types, and as you can see from the cover, the photography is excellent.

The book is available directly from the museum, but if you don't speak German, the online interface is a bit confusing. I'll put some ordering details at the bottom of this post.

I haven't sat down and slogged through all the German yet, but this is a catalog from an exhibition of a very large private collection. There are about 40 pieces dating from before 1600; most of the rest are 17th, 18th and 19th century. This same collection has been exhibited and published elsewhere as well. (There's a smaller 2003 book -- look for the name of the collector, Fredy B├╝hler.)

The book also includes quite a few rosary-related works of art -- including a picture I've wanted for a long time, a GOOD rendition of the large altarpiece of the Rosary Brotherhood from the Church of St. Andreas in Cologne, Germany. As I discovered when I went there, the painting is very large, mounted high up on a wall, and very difficult to photograph from the floor. Older photos I've seen are mostly very small.

As eye candy, this book is marvellous. But as I mentioned earlier, there are things about it that I find a bit troubling from a scholarly point of view.

Something very characteristic of private collections -- and true of this one -- is that everything is pretty. There are no partial or broken rosaries, no missing or damaged beads. Of course, part of this is a natural tendency for the nice ones to be what gets picked out for the exhibition and the book. But it leads me to wonder whether there are any less-than-perfect specimens in the collection: I, for one, would find them at least as interesting as the ones shown.

I am also disappointed to see only a bare minimum of information about each item -- a date, an assigned place of origin (on what basis it doesn't say), the bead materials (if known), and identification of any medals or other attachments. For the first half of the catalog, there are not even any measurements. In fact, there is nothing I would call discussion on any of the bead entries, including any mention of why the dates were assigned. Rosaries in general are very difficult to date just by looking at them, and the dearth of information is very disappointing.

And as I mentioned in my previous post, some of the reconstructions here bother me.

The first actual beads we encounter in the book, for instance, are these:


The first thing that struck me is that none of these are in the sort of arrangement that I would expect a rosary to be. Granted, we know that not all rosaries, even before 1600, had their Ave (small) beads in multiples of 5 or 10. But if a string is not broken or missing some beads, one would expect the numbers to correspond with some known devotional practice. I have seen little or no evidence of any such practice that would require, for instance, groups of 4 or 6, so I continue to think that fives, tens, and perhaps occasionally sevens are the numbers one ought to expect.

These first three sets of beads in the book are arranged in 6 groups of 4, 5 groups of 4, and 5 groups of 3. The beads on succeeding pages are predominantly in arrangements like 6x8, 3x8, 4x7, and 4x6. Outside of the tenners I discussed in my previous post, there are relatively few 10- or 5-bead groups. I haven't done a statistical analysis, but this looks very much to me as though whatever beads were available have been simply divided into equal parts, a marker inserted between each group, and the whole joined up into a circle. All of the rosaries presented in this book are arranged to look like complete pieces as they stand. I suspect this is misleading.

My second concern is about the way some of the sets are strung. It seems that wherever there is a metal part that has two holes or attachment points, it has been attached to the string of beads at both ends:


In the period artwork I've seen, and in other surviving originals, crosses, images of saints, and medals like these appear as pendants, and the loop at the bottom has a hanging pearl or jewel, as so commonly seen in 16th century and later jewelry. I don't think I've ever seen such a piece attached to the beads at both ends. Looking through the book, it does seem that a few of the pendants have been reconstructed as pendants with hanging pearls, but this only seems to happen when there actually is a surviving pearl.

One other thing struck me as odd. Several of the rosaries, like the one below, are strung not on any kind of fiber (silk is the most common) but on a fine metal chain. As far as I can tell from the photos, this is simply run through the beads as if it were thread. As I mentioned in discussing the Neville rosaries, I suspect this is a modern practice. I don't know exactly when chains fine enough to go through a bead hole became widely available -- I suspect, not until they were able to be made cheaply by machine.


Don't get me wrong here -- this is a very well-produced book, with lots of nice pictures and an amazing collection of medals, crosses, bead types, rosary cases (one shaped like a carrot!), reliquaries, tassels, carved beads and other parts. There are close to 600 rosaries pictured, including some very close closeups in the chapter-head pages and a lot of information about various medals and other pilgrimage souvenirs. (I could wish the rest of the photos were bigger, but I'm probably insatiable in that regard ;)

There are also several disk-rosaries that use bone disks as counters rather than beads -- and one with tin rings, which I'd never seen before. As I mentioned there are numerous illustrations of historical paintings, woodcuts, sculptures and bits of rosary literature, many of which were new to me. It's well worth buying if you are interested in historical religious artifacts.

But it's sad that in many respects it is lacking in the sort of information about the actual pieces shown that would be helpful to someone doing serious research.

ordering information

The link to the ordering page is here. Clicking on "Bestellen" brings up an order form, which is clearly not designed with overseas orders in mind. "Vorname, Familienname" are first and last names. "PLZ" is zip code, "Ort" is city. Since there is no place for "country," I simply put *all* my address information in the "Strasse" line (literally "street"), including street address, city, state and USA. It worked.

Payment is by wire transfer after the book arrives: my copy took about 8 weeks after ordering. An invoice is included with the book. My bank charged me $20 to do the wire transfer; the cost of the book plus shipping was about $55 if I remember correctly.