Since it’s Ash Wednesday I thought I might as well give this post a religious slant but as always keeping to my silver roots. So for the first day of Lent I’ve dedicated this post to rosary beads!
While rosary beads are considered to be almost exclusively Christian it turns out they originated in Eastern religions and had been used by Hindus before they were introduced to Christianity in the 11th century. Because of their religious function they are often overlooked as works of art and therefore are not very well documented. When I went looking up the subject there was plenty of information on the religious side of the rosary and very little on the history of the actual beads. From a silversmiths point of view I wanted to discover the origin of the design apart from the obvious function of counting decades of prayer. How and where they were made, decorated and sold.
You would think Ireland would have an amazing collection of rosary beads since our history is so linked to Catholicism but there are surprisingly few documents on the history of rosary beads and how they reflected the taste of the time. It seems the reason for this lack of artifacts is to do with the fact that it was (and still is) tradition to be buried with ones rosary beads.
The one place I found that had an amazing collection of religious artifacts was the Hunt Museum in Limerick. And the real beauty of this museum was that I didn’t have to travel to Limerick to see its exhibits! Their website has a brilliant photograph archive of all their exhibits which they have lovingly divided into categories. The National Museum could learn a thing or two from them.
Before I go on my rant about how hard it is to access any information on the artifacts of our National Museum they did launch a virtual tour of the museum online. Click here to have a look. I tried two different mouses/mice to try and zoom in on the exhibits but neither would work. I hope it’s just me and my mice!
Another great resource was the Galway City Museum website. They have a piece on the history of the beads as well as some pictures of the exhibits in their collection.
In the Hunt Museum website I found lots of great examples of Irish rosary beads and how they have developed and changed over time. I found it really interesting how the materials varied from the very modest to the most ornate. I suppose unlike a piece of jewellery it was essential to the faith as opposed to a mark of wealth and power. Depending on your station in life and your budget your beads could be made from a string of cord with fruit stones or fish bone or an extravagant string gold with precious jewels. I discovered that rosary beads and other religious jewellery in the Middle Ages were often exempt from taxes so wearing expensive rosary beads could be an excuse for showing off your wealth as well as your piety (real or not). This may also account for the fact that rosary beads became the most common accessory worn by all ranks of society.
In Ireland early sets of rosaries were strung on a cord or string that was tied at the end with a tassel of silk or twine. These were a straight string of ten beads and were usually simply decorated. This straight row of beads later developed to a loop form with the number of beads increasing. As the design progressed they began to look like the contemporary jewellery of the time and often incorporated jewellery such as medallions, brooches and sometimes even rings. There are even examples in Europe of the end of the beads being decorated with tiny purses and pomanders (small containers for holding different scents)
In Ireland they developed from early materials such as wood on a string to silver chained rosaries with glass or silver beads. These would most often be finished with a hollow silver cross that was made out of sheet metal. This silver would be very thin sheet which would be formed into tubes and soldered along the seams. The figure would be cast separately and soldered on to the hollow cross. This design which dates back to the 17th century remains mostly unchanged to the rosary beads which are produced today.
If anyone has any other information on the origin of rosary beads let me know…
Thanks to Mary Cogan who sent me the link to the Galway City Museum.