Rosary devotion has long been considered a "female-centered" religious practice. Despite this correlation, no scholars have investigated the relationship between women and the rosary. In this thesis I attempt to fill that void by examining a range of meanings the rosary held for laywomen in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Northern Europe, c. 1470 to c. 1530. Using a theoretical framework informed by materialism, gender theory, and Marian theory, my thesis argues that beyond its usual associations with indulgences, the rosary also signified prayers for conception and safe childbirth. In reciting prayers to the Madonna, laywomen spiritually and mystically projected themselves into the narrative of the Virgin's pregnancy, desiring to bear a child as Mary bore Christ.To explicate the relationship between women and the rosary, my thesis considers a variety of rosary images: female donors with their prayer beads, Andachtsbilder portraying the Christ Child holding and playing with a string of beads, images of the Holy Kinship, instructive prints from rosary manuals, and early family portrait scenes. As a whole, these images suggest that the rosary symbolized a budding womb, a wife's ideal piety, the desire for children, the maternal qualities of the Virgin, and an amulet to assuage the rigor of childbirth. Lastly, my thesis considers the rosary as religious jewelry. By looking to several examples of women depicted with ornate rosaries, my thesis argues that laywomen wore beads to elevate their status and to emulate the aristocracy. Moreover, wearing rosaries and/or being painted with one's rosary allowed for a public pronouncement of one's private piety. For women, then, wearing a rosary was another way in which they could enter into the public devotional realm. In arguing that the rosary was perceived by women as a blossoming vine, as a piece of religious jewelry, and as an aid in childbirth, I hope to have contributed new ways of understanding this multivalent devotional tool, and to have opened new avenues for others to consider the rosary beyond its usual associations with prayer counting and indulgences.



College and Department

Fine Arts and Communications; Visual Arts



Date Submitted


Document Type





Rosary, Northern Renaissance, Laywomen, Childbirth, Andachtsbild, Family Portraiture, Jewelry



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Art Practice Commons