Monday, October 15, 2012

Christian Prayer Beads

Orthodox Prayer Rope
Photo Credit: Mercy Chapel

Prehistoric desert monastics were known to carry pebbles in their pockets which they dropped rhythmically in the Egyptian sand as they recited their prayers. These Desert Fathers and Mothers began writing about this practice in the 3rd century A.D.

Over time, this devout practice transformed from piles of pebbles to seeds or small stones strung on cords of rope. This new practice likely evolved in order to save the supplicants some time. These initial prayer cords were straight, not looped as we find them today.

The first circlets of prayer beads were discovered in European graves dating to 782 A.D. Rings of bone sewn into leather thongs were turned over as prayers were counted. Though these simple circlets were popularly used by devotees for many centuries, they were not used by all sects of Christianity.

History shows a divergence of practice, with Orthodox believers adopting the use of knotted prayer ropes and Catholics using strings of beads to count their prayers.

Murano Glass Rosary
Photo Credit: Musings from a Catholic Bookstore

Orthodox Practices
The first use of knots to count prayers is difficult to pin down, but legend has it that Saint Anthony, founder of Orthodox monasticism, tied a knot in his leather rope every time he prayed Kyrie, eleison (“O Lord, have mercy.”). It is reported that he would find in the end that Satan had come along and untied all his knots, forcing him to begin again. Determined to thwart his enemy, he began wrapping his knots seven times across the cord, embedding within each knot the sacred sign of the cross. Unable to withstand the powers of this symbolic emblem, the devil was unable to untie his new knots. Kimberly Winston writes that Orthodox believers continue Saint Anthony’s techniques even today. {8}

Meanwhile, Greek Orthodox Christians carry woolen kombologion (“100 knots on cords”) prayer ropes with 33, 50, or 100 knots. Russian believers carry chotkis (“chaplets”), veritza (“string”), or lievstoka (“ladder”), each made of 103 beads. On the ladders, the beads run parallel to one another, symbolizing Jacob’s ladder of angels, meant to inspire the spiritual climb “toward greater devotion and virtue.” {1}

Early Catholic Prayer Beads
St. Benedict is credited for the institution of the Catholic rosary in the 4th century A.D. He taught his order of monks to pray all 150 Psalms every week. Though it would be more than 1,000 years before the Papacy would officially sanction the use of beads to count prayers, faithful monks throughout the ensuing centuries would count their recitation of the Pslams on beads made from coral, ivory, gemstones, precious metals, wood, clay, and eventually Venetian and Murano glass.

Eventually, practice of the rosary was adopted by laymen, many of whom did not know how to read or speak Latin. It was granted that these men and women could substitute one recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”) for one Psalm. This practice of reciting 150 “Our Fathers” each day became known as the “Pater Noster Psalter.” So popular was its practice that use of the word “pitter-patter” came into popularity to describe the sound of the prayer beads clacking together with the recitation of the Paters.

Medieval-style Rosary (made with coral beads), made by Ladyhawthorne
Photo and Rosary Design Copyright Canterbury Cottage Blog, 2011

Medieval Rosary Practice
During the Medieval Age, carrying or wearing a beaded rosary became the official symbol of Christianity. Many of the rosaries from the 1300s were strung with pomander beads filled with fragrant myrrh, cloves, and musk. Whether the wearer offered this fragrance as an offering to God or whether they wore them to ward off the plague, these rosaries were favored by women, who often added dried fruit, dried flowers, or figurines. {7} Many also added flourishes, including flasks of holy water or relics of saints, but some included talismans, such as heart medallions or good-luck charms. {2}.

Christians today wear crosses or place the fish symbol on their vehicle, but in the 1500s it was common practice for believers to wear a rosary on their arm or in some other prominent place to declare their faith. So widely spread was this practice that even royalty began wearing them. Most of these higher-class rosaries were made from gold, silver, amethysts, jasper, pearls, or jet.

Medieval rosary beads were either round or oval and were strung on ribbons or silk strands and worn as necklaces. Beads were rarely faceted and might include meaningful materials, such as coral, which was believed to have healing powers and guard against the “evil eye.” {2}

By the mid-15th century, people at nearly every level of society carried a rosary. Pilgrims on their way to shrines and churches wore distinctive rosaries about their waists to indicate their religious affiliation, even a few knightly orders adopted rosaries as part of their uniforms.

Rosary Maker
Photo Credit: It's About Time Blog

Paternoster Guilds
During this period, rosaries had become so popular in England that small groups of devotees began to assemble together. Called paternoster guilds, these groups of craftsmen and devotees served as hubs for making rosaries and to engage together in group prayer.

Each of these guilds were known for the materials they specialized in, most choosing some form of wood or glass beads, though some worked with precious stones or metals, as well. You can still visit Paternoster Row near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a place where many of these guilds operated.

The first of these brotherhoods was formed in Northern France by Alanus de Rupe in 1470 AD. Another was organized in Cologne, Germany in 1475. From these rather humble beginnings, active guilds began popping up all over Europe.

By the late 1590s European guilds adopted more universal standards for making rosaries. This may have had something to do with a ruling by the Council of Trent in 1573, when the Dominican Rosary (today’s standard rosary style) was officially adopted.

This circlet of 59 beads includes 50 small beads, divided by one large bead (Pater) into five “decades” (sets of ten). In place of a pendant, these rosaries have a string of three small Antiphon (liturgy) beads and two larger Pater (Our Father) beads which terminate in a crucifix.

Post-Medieval Decade Ring
Photo Credit: Portable Antiquities Database

Decade Rings
In areas where persecution was a threat to Catholics, such as in England or in Ireland, wearing a rosary could land you on pauper’s row or even down a well, so devotees fashioned rings called “tenners” or “decade rings.”

These rings consisted of one large centerpiece with ten small “nobs” around the band. {7} The ten smaller Ave beads were used to recite Hail Mary prayers, and an Our Father was prayed on the larger Pater stone between each set of ten prayers. Even after persecution lifted, these rings remained popular and can still be found in circulation today.

16th and 17th Centuries
Trade between Ireland and Spain during the 16th century resulted in the introduction of the Galway Rosary, which featured a tubular crucifix bearing a “primitive corpus,” a hallmark of many artifacts found in New Spain. {7}

Paternosters slid the string through the hollow crucifix, leaving a tassel at the end. Perhaps Catholic supplicants used these tassels in the same way that Orthodox supplicants did—to wipe away their tears. {5} In addition to these tassels, Galway crosses often featured a Madonna and child carved on the back side.

During the latter part of the 17th century, in Austria and Bavaria, the popularity of the silver filigree rosary, which featured seven decades of coral, crystal, or gemstone Aves divided by sliver filigree Pater beads. Silver filigree beads were also used in Venice, as well.

Ranger Rosary
Photo Credit: Project 59 Canada

18th Century
Prayer beads in the 1800s are characterized by the introduction of pressed glass beads. By the middle of the century glass beads were the most popular. Toward the end of this century, the New World was flooded with ships carrying immigrant Catholics and Orthodox believers who brought their beautiful rosaries into the harbors of New York. Most of these rosaries came from Germany, France, Spain, and Italy. {7}

Modern Rosaries
In 2003, Sargent Frank V. Ristaino founded a group called the Ranger Rosary Ministry. Their organization began sending “rugged combat rosaries” made from combat-zone-safe materials to troops fighting the wart post 9-11. Such materials included dark plastic beads and black crucifixes and strung on black parachute cords. They were distributed by chaplains to service men and women stationed around the world. {7}

As recently as 2007, the filigree rosaries that made their entrance in 18th-centur Austria and Bavaria were still being made in the Bavarian Forest. {7} Author Kimberly Winston reports that Turkish Christians regularly carry Catholic rosaries or Orthodox prayer ropes {8}.

The most popular rosaries made today are those dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Our Lady’s Psalter is counted on rosaries of five decades, separated by four ornate Pater beads, culminating in a “drop,” a crucifix attached to a short string of five extra beads (3 Aves and 2 Paters).

Our Lady in a garland of roses.
Painting by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

What’s in a Name?
While rumors abound that the term “rosary” was adopted from the practice of making rosary beads out of pressed rose petals, this is just a myth. Chris Laning has researched rose petal rosaries extensively and concluded that the first ones were made in the 1920s. {2}

The word rosary actually comes from the Latin word rosarium, which in the context of the Catholic Rosary means “a garden of roses” or a “circle of roses,” and refers not only to the circlets, but also to the practice of reciting the prayers.

Laning reports that the rosary was named after a legend involving some robbers who saw a young monk who had stopped to rest and pray. As the robbers watched, the Virgin Mother presented herself before the monk.

Each time he uttered a “Hail, Mary,” the robbers saw a rose drop from his lips to the ground in front of her. To show her delight in his prayers, she gathered up each rose and wove them into a garland which she put upon her head. {2}

The first official use of the term is credited to St. Benedict, who planted a monastic rose garden, which he called a “rosary,” in the fourth century AD. It was at this time that he instructed his disciples to pray the Psalter of David. It wasn't until the 13th century, when the legend of the Virgin Mary making a rose garland out of the prayers of her faithful monk, that the term rosarium became associated with the psalter.

At that time, rosarium primarily referred to a collection of short stories, prayers, or sections of text. Throughout the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, many different terms were used to describe the strings of prayer beads, including psalterium, rosanum, serto, capelleto, rosarium, and rosaria. It seems as though the word rosary was first used in Germany.

Of note, our English word bead finds its origins in Anglo-Saxon terms for prayer. Bede means prayer, while bidden means “to pray.” Though it seems that beads were first used as currency in early civilizations, it is no surprise that the correlation between these round beauties and the act of prayer soon became correlated, such that the very name for them would be synonymous with prayer.

Read about Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim prayer beads.


1. Encylopedia Britannica Online. “Rosary.” Accessed October 20, 2012.
2. Laning, Chris. “Historical Rosary and Paternoster Beads.” Paternoster-Row website, 2007-2009.
3. Museum of Anthropology. University of Missouri. “Prayer Beads: A Cultural Experience.” Copyright 2011. Last updated October 22, 2012.
4. Prayer Beads World (website). “Prayer Beads in Islam.” Copyright 2008. Accessed October 22, 2012.
5. Roman, Alexander. To Bead or Knot to Bead: Some Historical Considerations. As found on Chotkis website on October 22, 2012.
6. Rosarium, The. “About” Accessed October 22, 2012.
7. Rosary Workshop. “Journaling the Bead: A History of the Rosary.” Accessed October 20, 2012.
8. Winston, Kimberly. Bead One, Pray Too. New York: Moorehouse Publishing, 2008.

*Clip-art courtesy of The Graphics Fairy