Rosary of skulls and faces

This early 16th century German rosary from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection is a fabulous bit of memento mori, with callow, living mortals on one side of each bead and grinning death's heads on the other:

Each bead of the rosary represents the bust of a well-fed burgher or maiden on one side, and a skeleton on the other. The terminals, even more graphically, show the head of a deceased man, with half the image eaten away from decay. Such images served as reminders that life is fleeting and that leading a virtuous life as a faithful Christian is key to salvation.

Rosary, ca. 1500–1525 (via Neatorama)



  1. I like this.  I especially like it more than how I originally read the headline, which was “skulls and feces.”  I should have finished that second cup of coffee, in retrospect.

  2. It’s pretty cool. But, I’m trying hard to figure out how one would use it as a rosary. Or, was the rosary performed differently in the 1500’s?

  3. From the colour, cracks, quality of the carving and the Met reference, I’m going to assume these are ivory (of the elephant variety). Gorgeous. Bad for the elephants, of course, but an amazing carving medium all the same…

  4. I get to protect this piece sometimes. Granted, inside a display case it doesn’t need much more help, but I’m the human failsafe if the other humans exceed tolerances. I’d like to see someone’s old Catholic grandmother carry these around in their purse; I bet she’d start being invited to black metal clubs.

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