Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wood wall rosaries

wall rosaries, part II

Probably the most common material for modern wall rosaries is wood. It's quite a practical choice, since it's light in weight, so it's easy to make a rosary with big impressive-looking beads that doesn't require wall anchors or other heavy hardware if you actually want to hang it on a wall.

As I mentioned in the first of this series, most wall rosaries seem to be configured like the standard modern rosary: five decades with marker beads, plus a short string of a marker, three smaller beads and another marker above the cross at the end. But there are quite a number of different styles of beads.

First, I did find a couple of photos that show ways in which such a "wall rosary" can be hung. Some of them actually come with a wooden hanger, like this one:


This other picture from a recent eBay auction amuses me, because it illustrates the rather makeshift way I think some wall rosaries may be displayed. On the other hand, perhaps it was just arranged this way to be at convenient photo height.


The simplest type of wall rosary has plain round beads. These unvarnished beads are particularly nice ones.


Plain round beads may also be varnished. The lighter colored ones here are olive wood from the Holy Land. This particular style has beads that aren't as big as the others pictured; they're only about half an inch in diameter. It seems to be much easier to get olive wood beads from the Holy Land now than it was a few years ago when I was looking for them: admittedly it's hard to run any business during a state of active war.


I also see a lot of round beads that are cut lengthwise to the wood grain and finished to bring out the striped appearance of the grain.


There's a particular type of wood-bead wall rosary that seems to be especially popular in South America: it has a distinctively shaped cross. The wood here looks to me rather like palm wood. (As always, click on the photos to get a larger view.)


I used to see more wooden wall rosaries like this next one, whose beads appear to be cut from tree branches. These are out of fashion now and harder to find -- the usual wall-rosary suppliers seem to have discontinued them.


Oval beads are found as well as round ones, as in this next example. These often have particularly long, thin crucifixes on them. They look rather elegant and streamlined.


I've also seen a style that has rectangular, faceted beads, often with a very dark finish.


By far the most common and interesting type of wall rosary is one with decorated beads. The ones below all belong to a common "family" of decoration, where the primary motif is circles. You also see this style of decoration in much smaller rosary beads.



I find these beads interesting because they are all decorated using basically the same method. They are often listed as being "hand carved," but this is only partially true. I am reasonably sure that what's being used to decorate them is a small machine called a "rose engine," which was first invented in Germany in the early 1500s. When Holbein was sent to paint a miniature of Anne of Cleves in 1539, a rose-turned case was made to house the picture.

As one of my correspondents on the Paternosters mailing list explained, "These large round early 20th C wooden beads are formed into spheres on a lathe, and then the overlapping circle-dot (or Eye) designs are done using a revolving cutter, against which the beads are held by hand and cut section by section. The result somewhat resembles the pattern of a rosebud. The circles are often spaced out in a slightly random, hit-and-miss sort of way."

She adds, "This technique of carving and decorating beads I always associate with Christian rosaries, although in fact there are lots of wooden beads and some bone like this that also were made in China in around the 1900’s-1920s, and they weren't associated with crucifixes. It might be interesting to discover whether the stuff made in China was a result of Christian missionary activity or not.  Or whether perhaps the method of carving came to Europe from China."

(By the way, here is a Google Books link to a description of a rose-turning engine from an 1853 edition of the Mechanic's Magazine. I also found an online gallery of some spectacular ornamental turnings, some of which were done with a rose engine. A Google search on "rose turning"+engine will get you a few more examples, although disappointingly few are illustrated.)


Wall rosaries with rose-turned carved wooden beads seem actually to be the single most common type of wooden wall rosary you'll find on eBay and similar sites. I suspect this is because in the late 19th and early 20th century they were mass-produced in vast quantities as souvenirs for just about every notable pilgrimage site connected with the Virgin Mary. In the USA, the most common are those coming from St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, but I've also seen examples from Lourdes, from Buglose in the Pyrenees, and from Laghet on the Côte d'Azur. They seem to be most common in France.


Many of these rosaries have inscriptions on the heart-shaped medallions that draw the ends of the loop together, and the crucifixes of these are often decorated as well. My Paternosters correspondent points out that these designs are not carved, but stamped into the soft surface of the wood. This one is stamped "Souvenir de ND de Laghet" (ND standing for Notre-Dame). The other side says "Coeur Immaculé de Marie protege nous" ("Immaculate Heart of Mary protect us").


Like the other wall rosaries, people who have these for sale on eBay often have no idea what they are. I've bought a few for as little as $5. Since the beads are of a type known from the Renaissance, they make good material for historical reproductions, and I don't mind taking apart a modern rosary for its beads if some of the beads of a rosary like this have been damaged (which is often the case).

I've also seen these rosaries offered for as much as $500 -- generally with no takers at that price. These rosaries are still being produced and are generally in the $40-$50 range new. Unless an example has a particularly interesting history, or unless its age can be documented (which is difficult, as these beads are of a style that doesn't change much) I'm always a bit sad to see them sold for much more than they're worth.