Monday, July 26, 2010



In the last article, I showed a lot of pictures of a relatively common type of wall rosary that is made of some sort of ivory-colored material. Until recently I hadn't ever seen one of these in person, and on eBay they are described in wildly varying terminology, so I deduced that most of the people putting these up for sale have no idea what they're made of either.

A frequent guess is bone or ivory. But bone and ivory both have a "grain" of faint vertical stripes -- it's clearer in bone than in ivory. This doesn't, even when a fairly large smooth surface is exposed.


When you actually have it in your hand, this material is also harder and much heavier than bone. A sharp knife doesn't scratch it. On the Mohs scale of mineral hardness (where talc is 1 and a diamond is 10), bone or ivory has a hardness of about 3 to 5, while a steel knife is about 6, so the fact that a knife won't scratch it demonstrates that this material isn't likely to be bone or ivory.

Also, if this material were bone, that would be detectable by a simple burn test. (I bought a broken rosary of this type for tests, so I wouldn't feel bad about ruining a bead or two.) When held to a flame, bone will scorch, but it usually doesn't show a flame -- or if it does, when you remove it from the heat source the flame goes out by itself. The smell of burning bone is also quite distinctive: it's the smell of a dentist's office where someone has been drilling teeth. Bone scorches under the surface as well as on it -- if you rub off the black part, it's brown underneath.

This rosary material, on the other hand, not only shows a flame, it keeps on burning after you remove it from the heat -- you have to actively extinguish it. The surface turns black, and when it flakes off, the part just underneath the surface is completely unscorched, but soft like taffy. And it gives off a strong acrid smell like burning plastic. (This is a hint.)

This material is indeed at least partly plastic -- or "resin," as plastic is often politely called -- but why is it so heavy? A bit of Internet research reveals that some of these rosaries are labeled as being made from "Oxolyte." This turns out to be the key.

There is, as I discovered, a whole class of modern compounds that consist of stone dust with some sort of plastic (resin) binder. Oxolyte is the trademarked name for a particular compound that includes marble dust. There are other variations, which may use marble, limestone or alabaster dust (rarely quartz) as their stone component. These may be called bonded or cultured marble, sculptstone, thermostone, alabasterite or hydrostone. Most of them are from 75% to as much as 90% stone, which is why they are so heavy and hard. They are used for all sorts of ornamental plaques, statues, picture frames, stepping stones and other ornaments, especially for outdoor use since they are fairly weather-resistant. [1]

These materials can be carved, but their big advantage is that they can be cast in molds, which means a lot of copies of the same thing can be turned out very quickly. Well-made objects that have been cast are often touched up and smoothed, so there may or may not be visible "mold marks" that show where the joints of the mold were. But there's one sign that these objects were indeed cast in molds that is much harder to eradicate -- and the makers often don't bother, especially on surfaces not intended to be seen. Here's the back of the cross of the rosary I bought, and a closeup of the top of one of the beads:



See those round depressions, shaped like half of a small sphere?

Bubbles. From when the casting material didn't completely fill the mold.


[1] Many thanks to R.V. Dietrich, Professor Emeritus, Central Michigan University for this information.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

More off the wall


As I mentioned in Part I, I see a lot of wall rosaries for sale that are made of some sort of ivory-colored (sometimes white, gray or yellowish) material.*

This type of wall rosary is pretty readily recognizable. About three-quarters of the examples of this type I see look like this one:


These rosaries are invariably constructed chain-style with metal links through each bead. The beads are more or less inverted-pyramid shape, with images on four sides. Often the designs on the examples I see are blurry; sometimes they're hard to identify -- I have the feeling they may not have been all that well made in the first place. But when I can tell what they are, the common ones on the rosaries with pyramid-shaped beads are the face of Christ and the face of Mary. Many if not all of them have Mary on two opposite sides and Christ on the other two. On other variations of this type of rosary (discussed below) I've seen similar faces, plus images of visions of Mary (standing on something with kneeling children in front), of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of St. Anthony, and of (I think) Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The designs are "antiqued" with brown or black pigment to bring out the detail.


I will say again that there are a whole lot of these out there. These rosaries are still being made and sold new, either imported by Catholic gift shops or directly from Italian sources like ( gets you there too). And at any given moment there are likely to be two or three of these rosaries for sale on eBay. But just as with other wall rosaries, people who run into one of these have almost always never seen one before and have no idea what they are.

Since these are assembled from parts, it's not surprising to see some mixing and matching with different styles of central medallions and crucifixes. The most common type of crucifix is this one:


(See the engraved asterisks all over the background of this? If you're old enough, you may remember this motif as a very popular one in early 1960s "modern" decor.)

Other styles I've also seen:

alt-cross  twig-cross

The commonest center element is this one, although I've seen a number of different plaques and figures:


But I won't bore you with every possible variation.

I've seen just a few photos of another version, with beads that are flattened on two sides. This example is a rosary specifically in memory of Pope John XXIII. Here's the centerpiece:


It's not a very good photo. I have an even less good image of the faces of these beads -- which have what is clearly John XXIII's face on the flat sides, as you can tell by comparing them to the center medallion, although the beads in the photo are very worn. The beads also have designs molded onto their edges, which are hard to see and identify.



I suspect, though I don't know for sure, that rosaries of this type may also have been made to commemorate Pope Pius XII -- I have seen one privately owned example that seems to have a different face on it than the John XXIII one, but is otherwise extremely similar. The face on that one is a close match for the profiles I've seen of Pius XII (pope 1939-1958), which would make sense, since these rosaries seem to have been most popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I'm actually re-considering my previous idea that wall rosaries were seldom used for prayer, because the images on these seem so often to be worn looking. Either they were used and handled a lot, or perhaps the material is not very durable. This also makes me think that perhaps some of these rosaries were displayed draped tastefully over tables or other furniture where they were touched more frequently, rather than hung on walls. If anyone has better photos of beads like this, or more information, I'd love to hear about it.

*(I was going to be all mean and make you wait for my conclusion about what these are -- and in the next article I'll tell you about the common wrong guesses. But for now, I will offer the key words: alabasterite or oxolyte. Full story next time.)


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.