Art for Christian Liturgy in the Middle Ages


RELIGIOUS UTTERANCES – art of faith introduces the reader to humanity’s historic relationship between art and faith. This daily series of articles examines the interlacing of art and faith from across the Anglican Communion. The title of the series, Religious Utterances, comes from systematic theologian Dr. Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu, whose work seeks “a recovery of humanity’s religious utterances through art.”


Sixteen in a series:

Art for the Christian Liturgy in the Middle Ages

Theme: Ritual Objects

The term liturgy refers to the rites and ceremonies prescribed by the Eastern and Western Church for communal worship. The central focus of the liturgy is the Eucharist, in which Christians take consecrated wine and bread in commemoration of the Last Supper and Christ’s death. While liturgical practices were codified gradually over several centuries and varied locally, eucharistic vessels for the bread and wine, the paten, and the chalice remained indispensable (Attarouthi Treasure, 1986.3.1-15; Chalice, Paten, and Straw, 47.101.26-29). The liturgy in both the Eastern and Western Church necessitated a variety of additional objects such as books, often richly decorated, for prayers, music, and Old and New Testament readings (Leaf from a Missal, 1992.238); crosses for the altar and to be carried in procession (The Cloisters Cross, 63.12; Processional Cross, 1993.163); censers for the burning of incense; and lighting devices for the sanctuary (Polycandelon with Crosses, 2002.483.7).

Because of their sacred function, liturgical objects were often crafted of the most precious materials. In a written account of Justinian’s famed sixth-century church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, one author tells of hundreds of vessels and furnishings made of pure gold with pearls and precious stones. Emulating the splendors of Byzantium in his lavish commissions for the royal abbey church of Saint-Denis, north of Paris, Abbot Suger exclaimed in the 1140s:

If golden pouring vessels, golden vials, golden little mortars used to serve … to collect the blood of goats or calves, how much more must golden vessels, precious stones, and whatever is most valued … be laid out … for the reception of the blood of Christ! Surely, neither we nor our possessions suffice for this service.

Source: Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. “Art for the Christian Liturgy in the Middle Ages”. In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001)

On View: Chasuble, ca. 1330–1350, English. Silk and silver-gilt thread and colored silks in underside couching, split stitch, laid-and-couched work, and raised work, with pearls on velvet; 51 x 30 in. (129.5 x 76.2 cm)

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