Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Neville gold rosaries

Several people alerted me to two gold rosaries that were listed last winter in an upcoming sale at Bonham's auction house -- for which, my thanks. Thanks also to Rachel Osborn-Howard of Bonham's, who gave me permission to write about these and to republish a few of their photos. I also very much appreciate the additional information she was kind enough to provide.

Howard Neville was a dealer in early works of art and textiles for forty years, and Bonham's had their first sale of some of his collection this past December. Among the items for sale were two gold rosaries and a gold crucifix, all dated to the 16th or 17th century. Here's the first one:


The final version of the description in the sale catalog is: "A 17th century silver-gilt rosary with a Corpus Christi pendant, the Corpus Christi with a plaque above inscribed INRI and with a skull and crossbones below, the rosary chain with circular beads interspersed with flat pierced beads and terminating with a pierced pendant above a single chain of beads with the corpus below, chain possibly later, the cross 7.5cm high, the chain approximately 74cm long."

Here's the second one, whose catalog description was: "A 17th century Flemish silver-gilt rosary with a Corpus Christi pendant, the chain applied with segmented beads, the sides decorated with applied circles, chain possibly later, one bead missing, the cross 8.5cm high, the chain 52cm long."


There is also a third item from this sale that is just a cross, with a small pendant at the bottom:

Neville3 cross

The fact that these are gold (actually, gilded silver) automatically puts them in the "spectacular" category. For the most part, they are also in excellent condition; the first rosary has only one damaged bead; the second is clearly missing some beads, as there are only 29. The crucifixes show some normal wear, but they too are in excellent shape.

As I've said many times before, dating rosaries is always hard. That goes for these too. Hollow gold beads like these have been made for thousands of years, either plain as in the first example, or decorated with bits of added-on wire as in the second. It's virtually impossible to date them by style.

Often the best clue we have about the age of a rosary is the artistic style of the cross or medals attached to the beads. The Neville rosaries and crucifix have been looked at by experts who know a whole lot more about art history than I do: they identify the crucifixes as 16th or 17th century Flemish work.

When I first saw these, they were described as 16th century. But the longer rosary is made with a chain type of construction, where each bead is on a short length of wire with loops at each end, and the beads are made into a chain by interlocking these loops. This is how almost all rosaries were made in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it's not at all common before 1600. Most rosaries before 1600 were strung on silk thread. (The gold rosary of Mary, Queen of Scots, is an exception, dated to 1587.)

It is also uncommon -- though again not unheard of -- to see the cross hanging from a short chain of three "extra" beads. These extra beads were not originally part of the rosary in the Middle Ages. They seem to first appear sometime in the very late 1500s, but they did not really become universal until the 19th century.

The second of the Neville rosaries is strung on a fine metal chain. This is also not typical of rosaries from this period, which as far as I know were mostly strung on silk. (I've seen a number of historical rosaries that are now strung on metal chain, but to the best of my knowledge, they have all been re-strung and the chain is modern.)

You can see a bit of chain in the second rosary in the very bottom right corner of the first closeup below:


And in this not-so-good second closeup:


This second rosary currently has 29 beads and no gauds (marker beads). This too would be unusual for a rosary of this date. While there are some rosaries with 30 beads (plus gauds), the most common number is 50 (plus gauds). Some special types of rosaries have 63, 72 or other numbers, but 50 is overwhelmingly the most common.

The chain construction and the three "extra" beads of the first rosary, and the chain "string" of the second rosary, lead me to think that if these are actually more or less intact pieces and haven't been heavily modified, a date in the 17th century is rather more likely than the 16th. As you saw, the catalog description in its final version did agree with that.

But you'll notice I said "if."

The individual beads in both cases could certainly be 16th or 17th century. But I have to wonder whether some 16th or 17th century crosses and some beads from one or more other sources -- even, perhaps, from other sources of the same date -- might have been combined to make a rosary that looks more complete.

This is something that happens all the time, not only to items in private collections, but to items in museums. It is very natural to want to make an item look more complete, perhaps more like what it looked like when new -- especially if you are certain you know what it looked like originally. For rosaries, that very often means arranging the beads in equal-numbered groups (usually 10), with marker beads between each group, something like a flat metal medallion at the joining of the loop, and a short chain of three (sometimes five) beads above the crucifix. Because this construction is so universal in the 19th and 20th centuries, many people assume that this is what all rosaries should look like. As you'll have seen if you've been reading this blog, that's not really true for rosaries before the 19th century.

(Today, museums are far more cautious, and are more likely to show a broken or incomplete item in its unrepaired state, perhaps with a separate "reproduction" next to it. But this is a fairly recent trend. Anything that's been in a museum for a few decades is very likely to have been cleaned and restored in ways we might not do today.)

Thinking along these lines, I began to wonder particularly about the central medallion on the first set of beads. Here's a closeup.


Two things bother me here. (And I'm no jewelry expert, so take my opinion for what it's worth.) One is that a flat medallion at the joining is, as I said, a rather late feature in rosaries; none of the other 16th-17th century rosaries I've seen have a medallion. Either each decade ends with a gaud so there are two gauds side by side when the loop joins, or else both threads are run through a single gaud in this position. I don't know exactly when joining the loop with a flat medallion came into style, but I can't help wondering whether it was in the 19th century. Even the Biedermeyer-style filigree rosaries, which are dated to various points in the 18th and 19th centuries, don't have it.

The other thing is that, compared to the workmanship on the rest of the rosary, this medallion is rather crude. A silver-gilt rosary was a piece of fine jewelry, usually made by a goldsmith, and I would really not expect something only approximately symmetrical, and with irregular engraving like this, to be part of it. In fact, I rather wish I knew whether a metallurgic test was done on this medallion, because it looks to me as though it might even be something like a part from a 19th- or early 20th-century brass item from India.

I have no doubt that the crucifixes are original and date from when the experts say they date from. But it would have been relatively easy for someone to take some loose beads and put together plausible-looking rosaries to go with two of the crucifixes.

I don't know of any evidence this was done, but there's also -- in my admittedly limited experience -- no evidence that would comprehensively rule it out. That would also explain the relatively undamaged condition of these pieces, as well as the style of construction.

So while I very much appreciate the chance to see and study these pieces from the Neville collection, I think that considerable doubt must remain about whether they are in their original form, and therefore, about whether they can be relied on to give us significant information about rosaries in the past.