Sunday, August 01, 2010

Rosary or not: gauds and groups

part 4 of a series

As I mentioned earlier, the first essential of doing research on rosaries and paternosters is to be able to identify paternoster beads when we see them. Besides the "people clues" — who is wearing or holding the beads and how — some clues come from the beads themselves.

I've been looking at some portraits of women with beads around the neck that I'm pretty sure are decorative necklaces and not rosaries. But then I ran across the painting below. It's called "The Magdalen Weeping," and was painted about 1525 in the Workshop of the "Master of the Magdalen Legend." It's now in the National Gallery, London.

Magdalen Weeping, by the Master of the Magdalen Legend. © National Gallery, London

(I must digress here to praise the National Gallery for their new website, with its quite remarkable zoom viewer. A few years ago all they had on the site was one small image of each painting. The zoom viewer is a major improvement, and a boon to anyone who needs to see small details without having to cross a large ocean.)

Here's a closeup. As always, click on the picture for a larger view:

Magdalen Weeping, by the Master of the Magdalen Legend. © National Gallery, London

A very good clue that something is a rosary is the presence of gauds (marker beads) at regular intervals on a single string of beads, with smaller beads between. The painter may or may not reproduce exactly how many beads are in each interval, but my sense is that the presence of larger, contrasting colored beads like this is probably intended as a signal that this element of the painting represents a rosary. So far, I have not seen anything that couldn't be a rosary that has this feature.

An additional clue in Saint Mary Magdalen's necklace is that it has a cross hanging from it. This by itself isn't definitive: medieval necklaces can also have crosses. And if you've been reading this blog for awhile, you will have seen that medieval and Renaissance rosaries didn't always have crosses, by any means: they could end with a medal, a tassel, or just be a continuous loop with no defined end point. But coupled with the gauds, this makes me even more inclined to think that this is a rosary.

In many paintings we can see enough of the beads to tell that they are definitely in groups of ten. While there were probably other devotional practices that used beads in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the "decade" style of rosary devotion was overwhelmingly the most popular and easily recognized. This is an additional factor reinforcing the message that this is intended to signify a rosary, and perhaps a clue that the artist was attempting to paint literally what he saw.

Interestingly, the bead numbers are less than clear in the Magdalen painting. If you look closely at the detail, the beads toward the back of her neck become rather vague. There might be another clear gaud (these are probably intended to be rock crystal) on the lower of the two strands after the tenth bead (counting backward from the gaud close to the cross) but the painting is rather muddled in this area.

I've also seen a number of paintings where the beads are in groups of approximately ten — nine or eleven are fairly common, and sometimes eight or twelve. If several groups are visible, they will very often have different numbers. This leads me to think that the artist is being less than perfectly literal, but that a rosary is probably still the intended meaning.

It becomes more problematic when the beads are in regular groups of less than ten. My working hypothesis is that if there are gauds at regular intervals, a rosary is probably the intended meaning. But there are cases where I'm not sure what to think. For instance, there is this: a detail from a portrait of about 1585 of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia by the workshop of Alonso de Sánchez Coello. The Infanta is pictured with her dwarf, Magdalena Ruiz, who is wearing beads around her neck. (This portrait is in the Museo del Prado, Madrid — which has another very nice zoom viewer on their website.)

Magdalena Ruiz, detail from a portrait of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia by the workshop of Alonso Sanchez Coello, ca. 1585. © Museo del Prado

The beads are in regular groupings, but the groups are only three beads. There is a cross hanging from the beads. Rosary or not? I've debated about this one. I'm inclined to think it is: the regular groups with gauds and the cross strongly suggest it — especially since the cross is not hanging neatly in the bottom center as I think it would if this was a decorative necklace with a cross pendant. This has more the air of a familiar string of beads flung casually around Magdalena's neck because she has her hands full (with a couple of playful monkeys). The cross also looks like a type common to rosaries: compare the sketches in the Book of Guaman Poma.

My working hypothesis is that groups of "known" numbers are a clue that something is a rosary, but other groupings — depending on what other clues are present — are not necessarily a signal that this is not a rosary. No doubt this is my bias showing. I study rosaries, so I may be inclined to see them everywhere. But I would rather think that my experience with the styles and appearance of medieval and Renaissance rosaries may be leading me to point out rosaries in paintings where their significance has previously been missed.

Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: Rosary or not?
Part 2: From a Spanish galleon
Par 3: Rosary or not: the people factor