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Wednesday, November 09, 2016

More on medieval prayer-nuts

Prayer Bead, 1500-1530, Mouth of Hell Mouth of Hell

Photo, The Globe and Mail: Ian LeFebvre
Not so long ago I wrote a group of poems for the Phoenicia Publishing anthology on the Annunciation, and then let publisher Elizabeth Adams pick what she liked best. One of the poems was about a medieval prayer-nut, and it appeared in John Wilson's Books and Culture.

Now there is some new research about prayer-nuts or prayer beads, and I think it wonderfully interesting. A fascinating article in the Globe and Mail tells us some things we've never known about these tiny, strange, packed-with-image orbs.

It turns out that a good deal of what's inside is invisible to the viewer, which is rather like the biblical idea of believing in what is unseen: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (KJV Hebrews 11:1). Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII at prayer are hidden behind a pillar. A rack of flayed humans is half-hidden behind the mouth of hell. The CT spies out detail that the owner of the bead never could have known.

How are these little miracles of the seen and unseen made? We now know much more than we did when I wrote my poem. The Art Gallery of Ontario has been peering around inside the beads. "The AGO’s micro-CT scans reveal for the first time that they were carved from a single piece of boxwood, but in parts, like stage sets, then held together, grain aligned, with tiny boxwood pins smaller than a single grass seed."

An experienced master craftsman, with the help of many CT scans, has now taken one of these apart, and so new secrets are known. "Craftsmen used tiny five-centimetre-long tools to drill and gouge and vein the exquisitely detailed religious scenes within the beads – some of which depict dozens of characters in full regalia and action, in a space about 2.5 centimetres wide and 1.5 cm deep." Take a look at the article; if you love the medieval world, you will find that the description of research on these small marvels is packed with interesting details.

The original post about my prayer-nut poem here.
  Includes links to beads at the Met.
The poem about the prayer-nut here.
  Books and Culture.
The new findings about prayer-nuts here.
  The Globe and Mail. With lots of images! (And, oddly, Trump and Comey.)

"The final result is an international exhibition, Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, that premieres Saturday in Toronto at the AGO, and then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum. Toronto’s boxwood has hit the big time, baby." --Ian Brown


  1. I am fascinated by the miniature art object as controlled substitute for the Word in a society that was illiterate except for the few; and I wonder about who was privileged enough to own the miniature art objects. Did the artists -- as always -- surrender their art which then became a possession of someone else? Why?

    Thank you for sharing everything.

    1. I think this paragraph from Ian Brown answers all of that to some degree: Only 135 miniature boxwood carvings – prayer beads and miniature altarpieces included – survive to this day. Twelve of the world’s extant prayer beads are in the Thomson Collection at the AGO. They were designed to be worn as devotional objects at the end of a rosary a Catholic would use to count off prayers: The spheres open to reveal two or more religious scenes from the Bible. But they were equally important as status objects – “the Rolex watches of the Middle Ages,” according to Scholten, who was in Toronto this week to see the set-up of the exhibition. The original beads were carved between 1500 and 1530: After that, they simply disappear, possibly due to the no-nonsense Reformation (which disapproved of religious tchotchkes) or maybe because the man who made most of them had died. There is general consensus most were made in Antwerp, in Flanders; less consensus that they were made in one or two workshops; and less consensus still that both workshops were run by a guy named Adam Theodorici.

    2. But perhaps we'll know more soon, as the traveling show is going to attract more research interest, I imagine.

  2. I think it's a common modern-day reaction to marvel at the fact that there are aspects to these carvings that the human viewer can't see, but I'm reminded of gargoyles and grotesques, many of which go unseen forever. It's important enough to the carver that God knows it's there. It's neat to see evidence of that same attitude in the making of these prayer nuts, too.

    1. Isn't it interesting that the idea dictates how things are made on the largest scale--cathedrals--and on the smallest--the nuts? I really love that unity between very different designs and purposes.

  3. What a fascinating article (in our Canadian Globe & Mail yet!). Thanks for this. I missed it because I don't often visit since they require a paid subscription beyond a few visits a month. I wish I was closer to go and visit that exhibition but it is great that the article has some nice enlarged photos of those amazing carved miniatures.

    1. The images at the Met are also quite large and clear (though of course you can't see the "invisibles" they talk about....)


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.