A Renaissance Rosary

Rosary (Paternoster) | Gilt copper with enamels | Italy, perhaps Venice or Florence, late 15th or early 16th century | The Cleveland Museum of Art, | Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund 1952.277 Rosary (Paternoster) | Gilt copper with enamels | Italy, perhaps Venice or Florence, late 15th or early 16th century | The Cleveland Museum of Art, | Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund 1952.277

L’origine del termine rosario risale ad un’usanza dell’epoca medioevale consistente nel deporre una corona di rose sulle statue della Vergine come simbolo di preghiere ‘belle’ e ‘profumate’ rivolte dai fedeli a Maria. Da qui, derivò l’idea di usare una collana di grani per guidare la meditazione e nel XIII secolo i monaci circensi elaborarono una nuova preghiera che chiamarono rosario, giacché paragonata ad una corona di rose mistiche offerte alla Vergine. Questa forma di devozione, che crebbe con il passare dei secoli, fu resa popolare da San Domenico che secondo la tradizione ricevette nel 1214 il primo rosario dalla Vergine Maria. Il Museo di Arte di Cleveland annovera nella propria collezione uno dei primi rosari di epoca rinascimentale. Benché sia impossibile determinarne con esattezza il luogo di provenienza, fattura, materiale e stile utilizzati fanno presuporre che sia stato forgiato a Venezia o Firenze tra la fine del ‘400 e l’inizio del ‘500.

The rosary remains a common devotional object for modern Roman Catholics. Few today, however, give thought to the origins and antiquity of the rosary. According to some Catholic traditions, the rosary was given to Saint Dominic in an apparition by the Virgin Mary in 1214. Yet, not all Catholics agree with that tradition and the exact origin of the rosary as a form of prayer remains the subject of debate among scholars.

The devotion of the rosary became widespread during the second half of the 15th century and was widely promoted by the Dominicans in the belief that it was introduced by their founder. In 1479, Pope Sixtus IV granted an indulgence to all who said the rosary, but evidence suggests that both the Our Father and the Hail Mary were recited with prayer beads even earlier. In 13th century Paris, for example, four trade guilds of prayer bead makers were referred to as paternosterers, and the beads themselves were known as paternosters (Latin for Our Father). This strongly suggests a link between the beads and the prayer, and it is by this name that rosaries were known in Italy during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Rosaries became common aids to prayer and private devotion in both home and chapel, allowing the devout to calculate and recite complex combinations of the Our Father, Hail Mary and the Creed. Unlike modern rosaries, Renaissance counterparts did not always feature five decades of beads arranged in a loop with a suspended cross. More usually they included a single decade of beads arranged on a straight cord. This allowed the user to simply repeat the same decade of prayers over and over as required. The Cleveland Museum of Art possesses one of these early rosaries from the Italian Renaissance. It features beads arranged in this fashion and is believed to date to the late 1400s or early 1500s. It is not known precisely where in Italy it was produced, though the materials, style and decoration might suggest Venice or Florence. 

In Renaissance Italy, like elsewhere in Europe, Christian spirituality expanded beyond the confines of churches and monasteries to promote a culture of prayer and private devotion primarily based in the home. The layperson now required objects such as small devotional pictures, sculptures, pendants, and books of hours which served as aids to contemplation, meditation and prayer. The devotion of the rosary easily flourished in this spiritual environment. Prayers with beads like the rosary may have begun as a practice by the laity to imitate Christian monasticism and the Liturgy of the Canonical Hours, during the course of which the monks prayed the 150 Psalms daily. As many of the laity could not read, they substituted 150 repetitions of the Our Father for the Psalms, sometimes using a cord with knots to keep an accurate count. Gradually, the Hail Mary came to replace the Our Father as the prayer most associated with the beads. Eventually, each decade came to be preceded by an Our Father.

Paternosters or rosaries were produced in a wide range of materials in medieval and Renaissance Italy, the most basic having beads of turned boxwood or bone. The very poorest in society used knotted cords. The 1483 inventory of the house of the Sienese physician Bartolo di Tura recorded strings of paternoster beads made from white and black paste. Venice exported large quantities of paternosters made of glass, rock crystal and Baltic amber. Customs account books from Rome show that thousands of paternosters with beads of enamel or colored glass, sometimes packed in barrels, were being imported into the city in the 1470s and 1480s for sale to visiting pilgrims. Judging from their low price, these must have been very simple objects. For the more affluent, rosary beads could be fashioned from precious materials and embellished with devotional imagery. Luxury paternosters eventually attracted the attention of sumptuary legislation. In 1449, for example, the Genoese forbade women from wearing paternosters made of gold, though silver was acceptable. Beads were also prohibited from being set with pearls or gems.

As we see from paintings and miniatures in manuscripts, paternosters were often carried conspicuously by their owners, and could be worn around the neck, on the wrist or attached to a belt. The 1428 inventory of the workshop of the Florentine goldsmith, Dino di Montuccio, recorded a set of coral beads with small silver crosses suitable for a woman (“da donna”), although it is difficult to know what made this paternoster gender specific. For many affluent Italians of the era, having a portrait painted with a rosary, a book of hours or other votive object was a signifier of personal piety as well as status.

The Cleveland rosary features faceted beads with Latin inscriptions such as AVE, IHS, DEI, and REX (Hail, Jesus, God, and King). The beads are made from gilded copper with the inscriptions and ornamentation rendered in colorful enamels. This would have been an expensive and ostentatious rosary when new. Though history has not recorded its original owner, we can assume it would have been a wealthy or noble individual. This particular type of rosary is rare. A similarly decorated example is known to be preserved in the Vatican Museums. Our rosary, though a beautiful example of Italian decorative arts, also speaks eloquently to the spirituality and piety of Renaissance Italians.