Bartholomäus Bruyn, Portrait of a 45 Year old Woman. Cologne, 1538. Alamy Stock Photo.
Prayer nut, Fitzwilliam Museum

The decorative shell of a prayer nut

Bartholomaus (or Barthel) Bruyn painted many portraits of the wealthy citizens of Cologne, which typically represent both his sitters’ material prosperity and their virtue. In this example, the decorative object of devotion once again hovers between an expression of piety and a sign of worldly wealth. The sombre hue of the woman’s robe serves to enhance the astonishingly detailed vibrancy of the trimmings – fur, gold jewellery, fine embroidery, and pearls. Along with these indications of her status, the woman holds a rosary with a large and beautifully-decorated prayer bead; the activity of her fingers among the beads perhaps relates to her pensive expression, indicating the contemplative direction of her thoughts.

Click on the prayer bead to find out more.

Anon., Prayer bead. Flemish, c. 1500-1525. FM: MAR.M.262-1912. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge.

The decorative shell of a prayer nut like this one opens out to reveal tiny, intricately carved religious scenes. In one half, the Virgin and child sit serenely, while in the other Saint Cecilia plays the organ. The owner of an item such as this could carry a miniature devotional space with them wherever they went, private and intimate, unless they chose to disclose it.