What do we see on top of the mensa when we enter a church? There are certain altar linens that all have their specific usages. There are, however, also non-fabric objects; we call them “vessels.” What are these sacred vessels, their histories, and their usage?
Nota Bene: The following is a general description. The usage of these vessels varies not only from denomination to denomination, but from church to church and congregation to congregation within a denomination.
When the Lord’s Supper was practiced regularly as part of the worship service after Pentecost, the early Christians met secretly in houses or other clandestine places. They used everyday objects to celebrate the Eucharistic feast. A chalice was a vessel that was used daily for drinking at meals. It could be made of gold, silver, bronze, tine, lead, or wood. Ancient coins or mosaics show us that the shape has changed over the course of history since the early days of Christianity. The chalice we are familiar with was not the original shape. Sadly, few of the actual objects remain due to the destruction of time.
A really wonderful and well preserved collection is found in a place that may be close for some of my readers to travel and see. The Cleveland museum owns four pieces of liturgical vessels from circa 500-700 A.D. This set was discovered in Northern Syria, where early Christians would have buried their precious goods from the invading Persians or Arabs.
1“Cleveland Beth Misona Chalice.” Beth Misona Treasure, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Ohio. Accessed September 1st, 2016. http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1950.380?collection_search_views_fulltext=&created_date_op=%3D&created_date=&between_start=&between_end=&field_artist=&page=20&f%5B0%5D=field_collection:836
2“Cleveland Beth Misona Paten.” Beth Misona Treasure, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Ohio. Accessed September 1st, 2016. http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1950.380?collection_search_views_fulltext=&created_date_op=%3D&created_date=&between_start=&between_end=&field_artist=&page=20&f%5B0%5D=field_collection:836
There are three chalices and one paten in this set. These are all silver; and the chalices are decorated with Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Christ, and the Blessed Virgin. The collection was given to a priest named Zeno by Kyriakos son of Domnos. If anyone has seen this beautiful collection, please leave a comment and tell us your thoughts! The Cleveland Museum is now most definitely on the list of places to someday visit.
When we see a chalice being used, it holds the wine during the Communion Service. It is made from metals—precious metals if the church can afford—or stone and it is normally covered with a special veil. In the Roman Catholic Church during a low Mass, the priest will be the one to carry the chalice. It is always covered in a silken material the same color as the liturgical season. During a high Mass, a subdeacon prepares the chalice cup on a credence table; it is then transported to the altar under the humeral veil. The humeral veil is like a shawl (long and narrow) worn over someone’s shoulders. The wearer carries the items hidden under the humeral veil to the altar. In other denominations, the chalice remains on the altar, covered by a white linen or a chalice veil of the same color as the liturgical season. It is uncovered for communion and then the chalice veil is replaced after that part of the service is concluded.
3Roberts, Carrie. Rose Chalice Veil. June 25th, 2015. Personal Collection, Baxter, Minnesota.
The second common vessel that can be seen upon the altars of most denominations is the paten. This small plate has a shallow dip and holds the bread during the Eucharist. This plate like object is carried by the priest or pastor as he distributes the bread at communion. Before the bread is placed on the paten, it is brought to the place of consecration from the sacristy in the third vessel, the ciborium. Lesage does note that before recent times—before the 20th century—it is almost pointless to search liturgical books for the word “ciborium.” The traditional name that goes with this vessel is “pyxides.”4 This is derived from the word the Greeks used for a little box. It was customary for early Christians, monks, or hermits, to store the consecrated Body of Christ in their homes in these small boxes. The priests could be seen carrying the sacrament to the shut-ins in these boxes. And these little treasure chests would also be used occasionally in processionals to carry the Host, although more often than not some other sacred object—a reliquary, a crucifix, or inside a statue of the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, or Christ—was used instead. Traditionally the chalice and paten are consecrated by a bishop, whereas the ciborium only receives a blessing.
4Robert Lesage, Vestments and Church Furniture (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1960), 34.
It is important to understand the objects we see being used every church service. We can create beautiful coverings and embroidery designs, but it is crucial to understand what we are covering and why we place appropriate designs to adorn these covers, because what is under them is truly special. For more information on sacred vessels, I recommend the third chapter in Robert Lesage’s book, Vestments and Church Furniture. Thank you for reading!
~Nihil Sine Deo~
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“Byzantium, Syria, 6th-7th Century Chalice From The Beth Misona Treasure.” The Amica Library. Accessed September, 1st, 2016. http://www.davidrumsey.com/amica/amico10101780-34861.html
“Chalice from the Beth Misona Treasure, c. 500-700.” Cleveland Museum of Art. Accessed September 1st, 2016. http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1950.380?collection_search_views_fulltext=&created_date_op=%3D&created_date=&between_start=&between_end=&field_artist=&page=20&f%5B0%5D=field_collection:836
Lesage, Robert. Vestments and Church Furniture. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1960.