Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What not to do...

This particular set of pretty pictures is pretty much about what NOT to do when making medieval-style rosaries.

Or at least, it's about some of the gift rosaries I've made that have some feature or other that is certainly not documentable as medieval, in my current state of knowledge.

First, you should ignore the elephant on this next set of beads: it's there because the recipient likes elephants. ;)

Other than the elephant, this is an attempt to construct a set of beads that might be appropriate for a Viking. This isn't quite as lunatic as it sounds: a good many of the Vikings did become Christians. However the peak centuries of what are popularly called "the Vikings" were a couple of hundred years before Christian prayer beads became really popular, so these are probably an anachronism. (And so is the style of the elephant pendant.)

I was inspired to create these by the marker beads, which are some sort of low-grade carnelian with silver caps. The end bead is a larger carved wood bead with more or less matching caps, and the pendant is a "knotwork" cross (though it doesn't look much like actual Norse or Irish knotwork). The small beads are carnelian.


This next set of beads has two features I wouldn't recommend if you're trying to make a set of documentably medieval beads. As I've mentioned before, I don't think I've seen any clear examples of paternoster or rosary beads with Ave beads (the small ones) of two colors alternating. I certainly haven't seen any actual surviving ones that are that way. I wrote a bit more about the doubtful evidence from paintings and woodcuts in my post on the Cabbage-Noster.

The other feature I don't recommend here is the faceted marker beads. While the carving and faceting of beads by hand was certainly possible in the Middle Ages, it was expensive, and not something that was normally done to glass beads: I don't think faceted glass beads became really common until machines were invented to do it rapidly and in quantity. I also don't think this particular style of faceting is at all likely for medieval beads. I bought these black faceted beads years ago and am finally using up the last of them.


Note: if you're wondering about the funny-looking background of some of these, I photograph most beads on my scanner, using a piece of synthetic white "fur" as the background. I'm in too much of a hurry at the moment to do the meticulous retouching to eliminate the shadows of the "fur.")

My third example today is of something that I actually think is plausible, though I can't prove it. This rosary was made for someone who wanted something in the style of "Henry VIII before the break with Rome." The flat, rose-shaped brass beads were something I ran across in a bead catalog, and I quite like them. The rose symbolism is quite appropriate for that period in English history -- a heraldic badge used by Henry VIII and his first wife Catharine of Aragon was a round symbol made from half a rose (for Henry) and half a pomegranate (for Catherine). We know that marker beads for rosaries were made in all sorts of shapes, some of which may also have heraldic significance, and we can be fairly sure that some marker beads were flat rather than round, so I was quite pleased to find these. Of course aristocratic beads like these would more likely have had actual gold markers; I don't know to what extent gold jewelry was imitated in brass in the Renaissance.


I'm much more dubious about the leaves I added to the same rose-shaped marker beads in the next rosary. We do know that at times the gauds (marker beads) were set off from the other beads by what might be called "spacers," smaller beads that are mostly decorative and don't "count" as part of the beads used for prayer. (Germans call them "Zwischenperlen," which I still think is a lovely word.) I was given these little leaf beads (also brass) as a gift, and my modern taste says they set off the rose beads nicely. But I can't document anything like this. All the Zwischenperlen I have seen in historical beads are little round, oval or flattened oval beads.


Like King René of Anjou (1409-1480) I make rosaries as a hobby. Unlike René, however, I try to make mine in the style of a historical period quite different from my own. ;) It's an interesting exercise, but it almost always means making some compromises with history, since (for one thing) for the most part we don't have exactly the same materials people in the Middle Ages had to work with. The round glass beads I use so often, for instance, are made by pressing -- a 19th century invention -- rather than being individually hand-wound on a mandrel. And we are not medieval people ourselves, so what seemed appropriate or attractive to them may or may not seem that way to us -- and vice versa.

These particular sets of beads show stronger tendencies than (I hope) most of what I make to "bend" the unwritten rules of medieval style in order to produce something I thought the recipients of the gifts would like. They're still fun, and making medieval rosaries as gifts is an incentive to research and debate the issues that come up in making them.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Off the wall

wall rosaries part I

Back in the very beginning of this blog I wrote an article called Up against the wall, which discussed very large rosaries, made for hanging on the wall. I mentioned wall rosaries again recently, and I've been collecting images for a while so I could write more about them.

The purpose of a wall rosary is to decorate a room and to serve as an expression of faith. It may be hung on a wall (though I'm not always clear on exactly how you're supposed to do this -- picture hooks?), or draped gracefully over a table or other piece of furniture. I don't get the impression that wall rosaries are actually used for prayer very often.

Wall rosaries tend to have beads anywhere from half an inch to an inch or so in diameter. The beads can be plain or with some sort of design or image on them. They can be connected by wire loops or strung on strings. The only thing they have in common is their size, although most of them are also arranged in the same pattern as a normal 20th century rosary: five groups of ten beads each, and an extra short string of beads above the crucifix.

When people don't recognize a wall rosary, they often assume that such a large rosary must be a "belt rosary" -- the sort of thing a monk or priest would wear attached to the belt over their religious habit. It's true that many monks, friars and nuns in traditional habits do wear a conspicuous rosary: this is a tradition that seems to have become especially popular in the 19th and early 20th century, with the upsurge in devotion to the Virgin Mary.

But if you actually look at these "belt rosaries," while they may have beads somewhat bigger than your ordinary pocket rosary, they are usually not that big. The standard size of beads for most modern rosaries is about 6 millimeters. Belt rosaries may be in the 10mm to 12mm range, but that's still half an inch or less. It's not at all unusual to find wall rosaries with beads over an inch, and this explanation doesn't account for those.

Another theory people come up with is that these big rosaries are somehow "pentitential." With (I suppose) vague memories of Scrooge's ghost dragging heavy, clanking chains, people suppose that great sinners must have been saddled with giant (clanking? ;) rosaries as some sort of badge of shame. It's an entertaining image, but doesn't have any basis in fact that I know of. (See This rosary is shot for another instance of this idea.)

The two most common sorts of wall rosary have beads respectively of wood and of a whitish synthetic compound that at first glance looks somewhat like ivory. Here's a common type of wooden wall rosary:


The ivory-colored synthetic rosaries tend to look like this, although there are a number of slightly different styles:


The artwork on these last is often in a rather striking 1960s artistic style -- I suspect the 1960s are when these began to be manufactured in quantity.

Both the wooden versions and this version are still being made and sold today, for instance at Rome Gift Shop and Italianrosaries.com. These rosaries tend to sell for prices in the range of $40 to $60, a fact I wish that more eBay sellers knew. (I recently saw one for which the seller was asking $500 -- he said he'd bought it for $150.)

I plan to write about both these common types at some point, but for now, here are a few of the less common types I've found.

Until recently there was a website that had a number of different styles using various colors and shapes of large glass beads. That site was down when I last checked, though. I'd imagine a wall rosary made of glass could be quite pretty, but also rather heavy.

A lighter-weight version has beads made of clear hard acrylic plastic with metal decoration.


Glow-in-the-dark plastic rosaries also come in large "wall versions." I have to admit, these are not to my personal taste: the idea of having a large glowing rosary on a wall seems a bit eerie to me. But obviously some people like them.


So far I've only seen one wall rosary made from leather. This is also the only one I've seen that has "beads" that are flat circles rather than round beads -- logical for a wall decoration, I'd think. The seller of this one on eBay said it was purchased about 50 years ago from monks in Florence, Italy.


And I've seen a number of wall rosaries made from various kinds of clay or ceramic, glazed or unglazed. These can be quite attractive in a "folk art" sort of way (I rather like these myself). I'd think that the weight might make them somewhat difficult to hang on a wall, however.



Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pretty pictures

Every so often I make a batch of medieval-style rosaries as gifts for friends or special occasions (and before you ask, no, I'm not making them for sale).

And when I'm busy or in the middle of research for some later posts (as now), sometimes you get a "pretty pictures" post with some chat about how I made each piece and what I find out along the way.

Here is one such post.

This first rosary is the subject of an experiment. It has a braided cord -- in this case, a 3-strand, fairly coarse braid because these beads have big holes and because a 3-strand braid is the only one I can currently do easily without looking at it. I'd like to do more braided cords, because I think they are likely to be more durable than plain silk twist (as I wrote here), but I find them very time-consuming to do.

I also didn't glue or put a crimp bead over the knot as I usually do; instead I took sewing thread and sewed through the knot several times to keep it from unraveling. So this one is a test. It's for someone who's likely to give it some hard wear, and we'll see how it holds up.

The small beads are bone -- about 8mm, since I forgot to photograph this one with a ruler -- and the red beads are glass, part of a necklace I bought from eBay that was supposed to be coral but wasn't. (Glass is heavier and colder than coral to the touch, and often has swirl marks: these beads do, and coral doesn't.)


This next set is smoky quartz (8mm) and the five different colored beads specified in the story from Alanus de Rupe's early rosary manual that I wrote about in Alanus de Lupe and the beads of death ;). Each colored bead has special symbolism.


These next are some beads I threw together quickly as a prize for a tournament -- hence the rather random charms attached. Although it's a well-known Christian symbol, I've never actually seen a fish attached to a historical rosary. I suspect the fish symbol fell out of favor after the early Christian centuries and was revived after the Reformation by Christians seeking to return to their "roots."

The small beads are natural-colored mother-of-pearl, which I really like the look of. I don't know -- and would be interested to know -- whether the rosaries mentioned in historical documents as being made of mother-of-pearl were this natural color or whether they were bleached white as we usually see today.

The markers are carved jasper. I haven't seen anything quite like this five-petaled rose motif as actual historical rosary beads (there's one example of something similar in wood), but depicting rosary beads as roses is very common in woodcuts, paintings and statues. Sometimes the Ave beads in such artwork are plain round beads and the gauds or marker beads are depicted as roses, and we know markers were made in many shapes, so it is at least plausible.


The last one for now is in memory of a friend's favorite saint: Saint Amalberga. I had never heard of her and had to look her up. There are actually three saints by this name, but their legends have become confused. The earliest, Saint Amalberga of Maubeuge (who died in 690) was a relative of Blessed Pepin of Landin; three of her children also became saints (Gudula, Emebert, and Reineldis, the last of whom made a pilgrimage to Rome and whose statue I wrote about here). This Amalberga is said to have crossed a lake to bring the Gospel to the people on the other side, standing on the backs of two helpful sturgeons that appeared for this purpose. (I envision a sort of medieval jet-skis.)

Another Amalberga lived a century or so later. She was a nun and is said to have refused marriage proposals from the Emperor -- either Charles Martel or Charlemagne, depending on which version you read -- and when he tried to drag her away from the altar, he broke her arm, and as a result was stricken with an illness which she later miraculously cured. The legend has her coffin floating away accompanied by fish, so there is something fishy about her too. There was a third Saint Amalberga, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, but she doesn't come along till the twelfth century.

These beads are green glass with mother-of-pearl markers, and I added an end bead of carved jade because I had it lying around and it seemed to go with the color theme. The attachments are another fish (especially appropriate in this case) and a square flat cross.


All of these projects are attempts to construct something that is appropriate as a gift for a particular friend or occasion, but at the same time is more or less plausible as a representation of what medieval rosary beads may have looked like. We're handicapped in trying to do this by the fact that we don't have the same materials available to us and by our incomplete knowledge. But it's still fun and still an interesting and useful exercise.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Rosaries in Peru

The Book of Guaman Poma

It's difficult to stay on topic while doing research. If you have any natural curiosity at all, you inevitably run across fascinating bits and pieces leading in all sorts of directions, and there's seldom time to follow them up properly. Reading an article about rosaries in the Andes recently led me not only to La Divina Pastora, but to a fascinating and unique book that is now online.

The Book of Guamán Poma is a stinging critique of Spanish colonial rule, written between 1600 and 1615 by a native Peruvian. Guamán or Huamán Poma (his Inca name) converted to Christianity and adopted the name Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala. His 1,189-page book was intended as a letter of protest to King Philip III of Spain but was never sent. The manuscript has been in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen since at least 1660.

The full title of the book is El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government -- "corónica" being a mistake for "crónica"). In it he outlines the injustices of colonial rule and proposes a new system of government, which would include drawing on the structures of traditional local government and appointing native Peruvians to many positions of authority. Needless to say, such a system was never implemented.

What inspired him to write such a book was probably a combination of factors. Guamán Poma worked with various Spanish officials as a Quechua translator. He himself was from a noble Inca family and lost all his estates in a series of disastrous lawsuits. In the late 1590s, he apparently became involved as one of a team of scribes and illustrators for Fray Martín de Murúa's Historia general del Piru. This experience seems to have prompted him to begin his own chronicle from a native point of view, which was -- as one might expect -- very different from Murúa's. His illustration of Murúa, in fact, shows him kicking an indigenous woman seated at a loom and is captioned, "The Mercedarian friar Martín de Murúa abuses his parishioners and takes justice into his own hands."

The Royal Danish Library has recently put the entire Book of Guamán Poma online, and it's fascinating. The best starting point is probably the index page, which contains an outline of the book and at the top, controls for viewing and enlarging pages. Each page shows a scanned image from the manuscript and a transliteration of the original text with modern footnotes. The button marked "Amplicación" leads to a much larger image of the original page.

What I immediately noticed, of course, was that many of the nearly 400 drawings in the Book of Guamán Poma show native Peruvians using rosary beads. (After researching historical rosary beads for this long, my eye inevitably goes straight to the beads in any picture!)

Here, for instance, is image #835, which is captioned, ""A Christian married couple of the Andes kneels to pray before an image of Christ crucified."

A Christian married couple of the Andes, from the Book of Guaman Poma

I was especially struck by this picture since you can "see" the couple saying prayers, indicated by the "speech scrolls" coming out of their mouths. This is an artistic convention that I've seen before in native South and Central American art (nost notably the Maya).

(By the way, I've done some Photoshop work on the images on this page, as you'll see if you compare them to the originals on the Danish Library website. I've lightened them and tried to fade the lettering in the background to make the pictures clearer. The originals all show lettering coming through from the other side of the page, some of them quite strongly.)

I'm not sure whether it's also artistic convention or a reflection of real practice to show people holding their rosaries with the cross upward. The majority of the illustrations that simply show someone holding a rosary have it oriented this way.

Another example (image 775) is captioned,"Exemplary Christians: A local Andean lord, seated on an usnu [Inka ceremonial seat], reads to his wife."

A local Andean lord and his wife, from the Book of Guaman Poma

As is common in these pictures, the "lord" is wearing a mixture of native and Spanish style clothing -- note, for instance, his hat, which is almost identical to one worn in a portrait of Philip II of Spain. While the lord's wife is holding her rosary, he is wearing his around his neck, which as I've mentioned before was actually not uncommon in the 16th century.

Another example of mixed clothing is this image (image 806), "The chief local magistrate (alcade mayor), or túqrikuq, of the municipal council in this kingdom."

The chief local magistrate, or túqrikuq, from the Book of Guaman Poma

As you can see, these pictures are actually more or less just pen and ink sketches, so they don't contain a lot of detail and probably can't be relied on to be totally accurate. However it's interesting to see in this one that there is some empty thread between the bead he is holding in his hand and the next group of beads. This suggests -- and it's really no surprise -- that these are beads strung on a thread, and that each bead is moved along the thread by the fingers as its corresponding prayer is said.

A closeup of the next picture (image 808) shows how much or how little we can actually see of these rosaries. Here is "The local magistrate, or camiua, of the crown."

The local magistrate, or camiua, from the Book of Guaman Poma

And a detail of the beads he is holding:

Detail of image 808, from the Book of Guaman Poma

Quick though this sketch is, we can clearly see two sizes of beads, the smaller Ave beads and the larger, and more decorated, marker beads or Paters. The lower part of the rosary shows ten Aves on either side, but the top part of the circle has 9 beads visible on one side, 4 on the other, and only space for about another 4 or 5 hidden in the hand. So this probably isn't intended as a literal bead-by-bead rendering.

We can also get a good look at the sketch of the cross. The interesting things here are that it has some sort of bead or knob at the end of each arm, and also that it is equal-armed, instead of the cross with a longer bottom part that we are more used to seeing. There is also no indication of a figure of Christ on the cross -- again not surprising, since most rosaries at and before this date seem to have had plain crosses.

Several other images in the book also show rosaries. Image 837 shows a woman praying (similar to the couple in the first picture). I won't try to give a complete list, but image 757 shows another official holding beads, image 825 shows a royal messenger wearing his beads around his neck (his hands are rather full -- he's carrying a bag over his wrist, a staff and something that looks like a note in one hand, is blowing a horn held in his other hand, has a flag flying from his hat and is accompanied by a dog). Image 828 shows a rosary lying, along with a pen case and inkwell, on a scribe's table, and image 933 shows more people praying, this time holding not only rosaries but also candles about three feet tall. Image 841 shows the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter, the Virgin standing within a giant rosary. Probably my favorite image (because of the funny hats) is image 17, which shows Guaman Poma himself as a young boy (wearing a top hat), his father Martín (wearing a native-style headband) and his mother, the noblewoman Juana, being instructed in the Christian faith by a priest named Martín Ayala (wearing what looks like a teapot on his head -- but it's really a biretta or clerical hat).