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Prayer and art in Rubin Museum's unique exhibition

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Count Your Blessings: The Art of Prayer Beads in Asia

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What do peach pits, human cranium, rudraksha seeds, and a snake skeleton all have to do with one another?

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They’re all used in prayer. That’s right, you read correctly. Usually part of a string of 108 beads, the most common materials are either precious stones or seeds. But out-of-the-ordinary objects have been used – and yes, that includes pieces of a human skull.

Prayer beads, as they are called, are used mainly in the Buddhist tradition, but can also be found in Christian (known as rosary beads), Hindu and Islamic practices. These beads are the subject of a small, perfectly curated exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art titled Count Your Blessings: The Art of Prayer Beads in Asia.

The concise specs-only labels, a fascinating touch station that appeals to kids and adults alike, an interactive computer that provides stories about specific strings of beads on view, and of course, a stellar collection composed of items from the Rubin, a private collection, and a few museum loans, all combine to make Count Your Blessings one of the best and most unique exhibitions on view this year. It is small enough that you can take it all in in one visit, and the information provided is just enough that you understand the premise and can retain all the exciting facts that you learned.

Prayer beads are often made in strings of 108, divided into four sections. This string of beads is not just something to wear, something to look at and admire. Instead, it is used as a way to help religious devotees in their often-lengthy prayer recitations, the speaker moving his fingers along each bead after each recitation is made (hence the well-named exhibition title, Count Your Blessings).

Prayer beads are often made of specific materials that have special meaning to the user. They are personal objects that will necessarily be used by an individual for an extended period of time. More expensive materials, like precious stones, might be used to indicate social status. Specific materials and colors have different meanings and it depends on the user’s intentions what is included in the string of beads. Bodhi seeds, for example, are seen as more effective than pearl or even crystal. The use of rudraksha or human cranium is best for “wrathful practices” while lapis and conch shell are used for more peaceful means.

The beads on display here contain everything from antelope horn to kingfisher feathers, walnut to coconut shell, and crocheted cloth to tiger’s eye gems. Some strings feature the typical 108 beads, while others are much shorter or very much longer. Don’t forget to look up as you wander the exhibition – one of the longest strands of prayer beads hangs from the ceiling.

Just in case you were curious what those beads feel like, the RMA has included a touch station for you – feel the smooth cool surface of human bone or the bumpy texture of the rudraksha seed. This is one of the most exciting aspects of the exhibition.

A few paintings from the Rubin’s collection also help to contextualize the pieces, placed strategically around the downstairs gallery space by curator Elena Pakhoutova – showing images of gods holding or wearing beads. There are a few books in the gift shop that also help to give the viewer extra background information if the exhibition so entices you, and a mobile site has been created for special access to the show through your smartphone or computer.

Count Your Blessings is on view through March 24, 2014.

We want to know: have you ever used prayer beads? What materials and colors did your string of beads have? What meaning do they have for you? Leave a comment in the space below to let us know!

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