From Inside a Prayer Bead

This weekend my middlest daughter came home to visit. She took the bus from Ottawa to Toronto and my wife and I went in to pick her up. Gwenanne was going to a work Christmas party in Toronto and so after picking up N, we dropped Gwenanne off and the two of us headed over to the Art Gallery of Ontario. There was an exhibit there that I had been hoping to catch, so this was the perfect opportunity.

Mystical Landscapes” is curated by Katharine Lochnan who, of late, is also a student of theology. The art she has drawn together in the exhibit is powerful and includes heavy hitters: Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Georgia O’Keefe, and Munch as well as a number of Group of Seven, Nordic and Western European landscape artists. I was especially entranced by some lithographs of Charles Marie Dulac. His pieces were ethereal and yet intimated an earthen connection that gives the viewer the feeling of being both grounded and floating. This is an artist experiencing something of a revival that is well deserved. The curators wisely set aside what I might call a “side chapel” for his work, which was most helpful in that his art is so subtle that it needs to be enjoyed in its own right/rite in a different light. We moved on a bit altered.

After making our way through the rest of this veritable feast for our eyes, we took in some sights at one of the floors dedicated to contemporary art and then headed off for a bite to eat. On returning we were wandering about, not quite aimlessly but nearly so, coming upon the sign for “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures.” We look at each other, shrugged and entered. I had remembered reading a bit about it in a magazine, and was immediately intrigued as we came upon the first display. Many of the displays were of prayer beads, commissioned rosaries wherein the bead was actually a small “ball” about 4 to 5 centimetres in diameter. The balls open up and illustrates scenes from Christ’s life. These prayer beads, crafted some 500 years ago have details not visible to the naked eye. The AGO has done a remarkable amount of research around these, and in a video we learned of Micro CT scanning that allowed researchers to take the beads apart virtually without dissembling them. It was really quite captivating, and when we reached the end of the display there was a young woman asking if we might be interested in a virtual tour of a prayer bead. Of course we said yes, and then each of us, in turn, was fitted with a head set and a set of googles that allowed us to “see” an opened prayer bead in front of us, seemingly about 4 to 5 metres wide and the same high. A control stick allowed us to expand certain sections, and we were able to “step” right into the ball. From inside we could bend down and look up at features carved into characters mere millimetres in size. I can’t quite describe the experience. It was utterly fascinating. I left the AGO on cloud nine.

On the drive home I thought about my experiences at the art gallery. They covered such a wide range: I was awed by a kind of minimalist art with a spirituality that left me without words, and I was also bowled over by a veritable army of technological innovation that made the impossible possible. These two experiences shared something, and I am still thinking about that. Good art, and the technology that supports it, moves us in ways various and sundry to the end that we live with just a little more awe – sometimes pondering the possibility that we really are making our way, day by day, through the bead that is prayer.

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4 thoughts on “From Inside a Prayer Bead

  1. R says:

    Thanks, Allen. It really is/was an exceptional show at the AGO.

  2. shoreacres says:

    Well, there went a full 45 minutes. By the time I pulled myself away from the Boxwood Miniatures website, I almost was ready to head to Toronto. The prayer beads remind me of some carved soapstone and ivory items I’ve had, but of course those weren’t nearly so detailed — or amazing — as the prayer beads.

    I’ve never had the sort of virtual reality experience you describe, but I have done some of the virtual, 3-D touring of places like the Sistine Chapel. That’s amazing enough. I can only imagine what it was like being inside one of those carvings. Emotionally, I imagine it being somewhat like the thrill of using a macro lens, and discovering whole worlds that never could be seen with the naked eye.

    Being able to experience history like that must have left you in awe of the venerable bead. (Sorry — I couldn’t resist!)

    • agjorgenson says:

      Ha! Further to “bead” I was surprised to learn that bead itself is an old English word for prayer, undoubtedly related to German beten for prayer. I’m glad that you were distracted pleasantly. It really was such fun. Mystical landscapes may be touring… I’m not sure. But don’t fly to Toronto for the virtual bead tour, since it was only offered for two days I happened upon the last one. As for your reference to ivory, they made mention of that in one of the displays. The boxwood was used for a period of around 100 years, during which ivory was difficult to obtain. Boxwood is very hard (they had a piece for us to touch), and so was a fitting substitute.

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