Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Rosary

Caravaggio, Madonna of The Rosary
Italian, ca. 1607
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
The use of beads to count repetitions of prayer is probably as old a practice as religion itself.  It is found in almost every culture that has some form of set prayers.  The number of beads depends on the number of prayers to be counted.  Here in New York, a set of prayer beads is one of the items frequently seen hanging from the rear view mirrors of thousands of yellow cabs.  These days most are the generally undifferentiated stands of beads tied with a simple knot or other simple indicator of beginning and end that are the prayer counters for followers of Islam, or Hinduism or Buddhism, some are the distinctive Catholic prayer counters known as rosaries.1  The Rosary looks different from the others because of its organization.  Unlike the others it is not just a continuous strand of beads, but is organized into a series of groups of beads, broken at times by a single bead and joined into a circle, not by a simple knot or marker, but by a triangular medallion which joins the line of beads into a circle and adds a dangling series of additional beads which ends in a cross, usually in the form of a crucifix.  It can be made of any bead, but is most usually made of glass, metal, gemstones or pearls.  The metals may be as cheap or as expensive as the budget or desire of the owner wishes.  Personally, I own several sets of rosary beads.  One is sterling silver, a gift from an aunt for my Confirmation, one is made of olive wood from the Holy Land, the others are all made of glass beads of different colors and one is faux pearl.  

The origins of the Rosary as it exists today are complicated, but it appears that from early Christian centuries, especially in the developing monastic tradition, strands of beads were used to count the repetitions of particular prayers, especially the Our Father.  Such strings were known in English as Paternosters (from the Latin for Our Father). Sometime during the middle ages, probably during the twelfth century, the idea of substituting 150 repetitions of the Angelic Salutation (Ave Maria or Hail Mary) for the 150 psalms in the Office of the Blessed Virgin gained popularity.   Its use was promoted by the Dominican Order of Preachers and, over time, came to be associated specifically with St. Dominic their founder, though there is no evidence for this.  Again, gradually over time the form of the Rosary developed into that which we know today.  The name “Rosary” developed from the idea that the prayers recited at each bead resembled a garland of roses offered to the Blessed Virgin Mary. 2  

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Institution of the Rosary
Italian, 1737-1739
Venice, Church of Santa Maria del Rosario
Tiepolo's splendidly Baroque vision of the
popularization of the Rosary by the Dominicans.

The form of the Rosary was fairly static from the fifteenth to the early twentieth century. In the twentieth century two changes have been made. In 1930 the Vatican approved the optional addition of the Fatima Prayer (as requested by The Blessed Virgin during apparitions at Fatima, Portugal in 1917) at the end of each decade of Hail Marys and in 2002 Pope St. John Paul II proposed an additional five decades to be known as the Luminous Mysteries.

Lorenzo Lotto, Madonna of the Rosary
Italian, 1539
Cingoli, Church of San Nicolo
This painting shows small roundels with images of the decades above the head 
of the Virgin and Child.  The Joyful Mysteries are the lowest set and the Glorious 
Mysteries are at the top.

As most Catholics and many others know the prayer known as the Rosary is a form of repeating prayer organized into “decades” of 10 Hail Marys, each preceded by one Our Father and followed by one Glory Be to the Father (also known as the Doxology). The full Rosary consists of 20 “decades”, organized into groups of five each. Each of the five groups focuses on a particular time frame within the life of Jesus and Mary. Each decade within the group is focused on a specific incident from the Bible or from Tradition on which the praying person is urged to meditate while reciting the prayers. These groups are known as Mysteries.
Attributed to Goswijn van der Weyden,
Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary and Madonna of the Rosary
Flemish, 1515-1520
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first group of five comprises the Joyful Mysteries, relating to the events surrounding the Incarnation of Jesus.

The second group of five, added by Pope St. John Paul II and called the Luminous Mysteries, focuses on the events of the public life of Jesus. 

The third group, the Sorrowful Mysteries, focuses on the events of the Passion of Christ, while the fourth group meditates on the events of the Resurrection and its aftermath and is known as the Glorious Mysteries.
The Rosary may be prayed in many different ways. Some people may pray the entire 20 decades at one time, some may pray only one decade at a time. The most common form is to recite the five decades of one series of Mysteries at one time, usually on a specific day of the week. Monday for the Joyful Mysteries, Tuesday for the Sorrowful, Wednesday for the Glorious, Thursday for the Luminous (or the Joyful, for those who follow the traditional Rosary without the Luminous Mysteries), Friday for the Sorrowful again, Saturday for the Joyful (again, or the Glorious for those following the traditional order) and Sunday for the Glorious Mysteries.

I propose to study each of the Mysteries of the Rosary in several essays. I have already begun with a series of essays on the Sorrowful Mysteries and individual related posts and the rest will follow. During this Advent and Christmas season I will begin with the Joyful Mysteries. These comprise the first five decades and are broken into the following: The Annunciation, The Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. All of these are Biblical scenes from the birth and childhood of Jesus and have a long history within the history of art. 

To view any essay, please click on the links shown below. Decade titles shown in bold are those for which essays exist.

The Joyful Mysteries

 1.  The Annunciation 

2. The Visitation
3.  The Nativity

4.  The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

5.  The Finding of Jesus in the Temple

Lourdes Souvenir Rosary Plate
French, 1925-1950
Sarreguimines, Musee de la Faience
This souvenir plate combines a central picture of the shrine of Our Lady 
at Lourdes with the fifteen decades of the traditional Rosary depicted as a 
border.  However, it reverses the order of the final two decades so that the Assumption and not the Coronation has the central position.

The Luminous Mysteries

1.  The Baptism in the Jordan

2.  The Wedding at Cana 
3.  The Proclamation of the Kingdom

4.  The Transfiguration
5.  The Institution of the Eucharist 

The Sorrowful Mysteries

1.  The Agony in the Garden

2.  The Scourging at the Pillar 

3.  The Crowning With Thorns

4.  The Carrying of the Cross 

5.  The Crucifixion

The Glorious Mysteries

1.  The Resurrection 
  •     here  This link leads to a page with multiple links to Resurrection images and analysis.

2.  The Ascension 

3.  The Descent of the Holy Spirit

4.  The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin

5.  The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin

© M. Duffy, 2014, revised 2017


1.        Some idea of the diversity and appearance of these different strands of prayer beads can be found at
2.       See Thurston, Herbert, and Andrew Shipman. "The Rosary." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 10 Dec. 2014 .

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