Thursday, December 23, 2010

A blessed Christmas

I haven't been posting much this year, but I can't let Christmas go by without a Christmas card. Especially since I've discovered the painter Gerard David (1460?-1523), who created a number of wonderful pictures that just happen to have paternosters or rosaries in them.

Here is yet another picture of the Virgin Mary, the Infant Jesus and a string of paternoster or rosary beads.


In this case, we can't tell as much about the beads as I would like because the only photo of this I could find online is a small one from the Museo Castagnino in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where the painting resides. The Museo Castagnino is a city museum named for local painter Juan Carlos Castagnino, housed in a delightfully turreted Art Nouveau mansion in what looks like the middle of downtown.


Here, as often elsewhere, the Virgin is dressed in a blue gown and red mantle. Most of what we see is the red mantle, which might explain why the beads shown are not painted in red, the color most often seen in such portraits of the Virgin with beads.

I can't tell from the painting whether we are looking at a long loop of beads with a tassel at the bottom, or whether this is a straight string with two tassels that just happen to be lying right next to each other. Either is interesting, but I would be happy if it was the latter, since it would support my theory that a long straight string is a possible, though not common, type of paternoster for women (assuming that the beads here are supposed to belong to the Virgin, not the Infant).

I can count approximately 32 beads in what we can see here, and the space hidden behind the Infant's hand and leg (and darling little toes) has room for about another 20 or so. I would guess this is intended to represent a string of 50 Aves and five Pater beads, one of which is visible just above the tassel(s) at the bottom.

The Ave beads seem to be a sort of gold color, but what I can see of the highlights and interior details (which is not much) suggest that they may be transparent, perhaps representing amber. I've seen another painting of the Virgin and Child with amber-like beads in the Isenheim altarpiece.

The Pater beads occur after every 10th Ave, as expected. They are more or less light-gray smudges in this image if you look at it up close, but I would guess that they might be intended as silver.

The Virgin and Child with beads seems to be a classic theme, and I always find it delightful, however anachronistic it is. It's an image -- like the images of the Virgin "in humility" that show her sitting on the ground -- that encouraged people, in the time when it was painted, to think of Mary and the Infant as human, warm and accessible, rather than majestic and distant. And Christmas is a celebration of exactly that: of a Christ as human as we are.

May peace be on all of us, and on this flawed but still beautiful world. Merry Christmas.

Previous Christmas posts:
Christmas 2005
Christmas 2006
Christmas 2007
Christmas 2008
Christmas 2009