A prayer nut (prayer bead); Christ in the House of Mary and Martha; Noli Me Tangere by Unknown Flemish Artist

Unknown Flemish artist

A prayer nut (prayer bead); Christ in the House of Mary and Martha; Noli Me Tangere, Early 16th century, Boxwood, Diameter: 5.1 cm, The Wallace Collection, London, S280, © The Wallace Collection

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The Lord is Near in Prayer

Commentary by

In Philippians 4:5, the Apostle Paul reminds the recipients of his letter that, ‘The Lord is near’. Of course, these words may be interpreted eschatologically: a reminder to the community at Philippi that the day of judgement is drawing near. However, as biblical scholars note, here the Greek term for ‘near’ (eggys) indicates spatial as well as temporal proximity (Craddock 1985: 71; Fee 1995: 407). That is, the apostle’s words may also be intended to encourage the beleaguered Philippians with the assurance that the Lord is near to them in prayer.

Boxwood ‘prayer nuts’ like this one came into use in the late Middle Ages, with most surviving examples dating from the early sixteenth century. Created for wealthy patrons as aids to personal devotion, these tiny, elegant objects would have served as tactile reminders that ‘the Lord is near’ in prayer.

Like other prayer nuts of this kind, its exterior is formed of two hemispheres carved with delicate, Gothic-inspired openwork tracery. The upper hemisphere is crowned with metalwork that includes a small loop that most likely would have been attached to a chain of prayer beads, known as a chaplet, or suspended from a belt (Cherry and Lowden 2008: 132, 138).

Once opened, the prayer nut reveals its intimate secrets. Two biblical scenes are represented in exquisite detail. The upper disk shows Christ in the house of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42). Mary sits attentively at Christ’s feet as Martha turns toward the kitchen and clutches her dress anxiously, as if pacing. In the background, the twelve disciples are depicted under an arch. Moving to the lower disk, the Noli Me Tangere—Christ’s post-resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11–17)—is represented in the foreground. Extending into the background on the right, successive scenes underscore the resurrection motif: an angel greeting the disciples at the empty tomb; the ‘harrowing of hell’; and the three Marys in the distance processing to anoint Christ’s body.

Measuring just five centimetres across when closed, this remarkable object is designed to be closely handled and admired. Pulling it near to examine its extraordinary detail, the beholder would be invited to enter into the narratives depicted and, through this prayerful, tactile encounter with Scripture, to discover God’s intimate nearness afresh.

 

References

Cherry, John, and John Lowden. 2008. Medieval Ivories and Works of Art: The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, vol. 1 (Toronto: Skylet Publishing)

Craddock, Fred. 1985. Philippians, Interpretation (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press)

Fee, Gordon D. 1995. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)