Treasures of the English church

This summer, cathedrals and parish churches from Cornwall to Carlisle have lent historic and contemporary altar plate to Goldsmiths’ Hall in the City of London for an exhibition that celebrates more than 12 centuries of Christian worship in England. Some 330 objects, ranging from a 10th-century liturgical calendar found at Canterbury to Anthony Elson’s 2007 swan censer for Lincoln Cathedral, are shown in seven rooms that have been transformed with colour and evocative architectural elements to create a spectacular setting. Organised under the patron-age of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, it’s the largest British exhibition ever held on this theme.

In the entrance hall, striking commissions for altar and processional plate in silver, gilt and enamel greet the visitor. These were made in the past half-century by leading British artists, such as Brian Asquith, Gerald Benney, Hector Miller, Grant Macdonald and Kevin Coates. The story then travels back through the twists and turns of Anglican worship to beyond the Reformation. The Paschal Lamb, engraved and gilded on the exquisite chalice and paten of Archbishop Walter from Canterbury, is an early rarity, its gleaming surfaces almost as bright today as when it was created eight centuries ago.

By its nature, altar plate is seen only at a distance, glinting on the altar, or glimpsed through reverently clasped hands, so it’s a pleasure to be able to look closely at these beautiful works of art. At the Goldsmiths’ Hall, the display and subtle lighting allow Jane Short’s delicate enamelwork or the modelling of St Michael on Leslie Durbin’s staff-head to be appreciated. On a great gilded basin made at the Restoration for St George’s Chapel, Windsor, a skilled German chaser has depicted Christ in high relief, washing the feet of his disciples. Glimpsed through Gothic arches and set against backdrops of damasked purple, gold and silver, the objects evoke the complexities of changing rituals. Despite the Elizabethan bishops’ 20-year campaign to change the Mass chalices for Communion cups, a campaign that stimulated the regional goldsmiths in Exeter, Chester, York, Lincoln and Norwich, each individual parish had its own ideas. Why has one church kept a medieval mazer, another a Caroline sweetmeat dish and another a rock-crystal wine cup?

Before the mid 19th century, there was no prejudice against bringing domestic plate into liturgical use. For a widow to give a treasured old cup to the family church was to ensure commemoration whenever it was brought to the altar table. Among the highlights of this exhibition are the many domestic vessels, steeple cups, tankards, caudle cups and even beer jugs, preserved through donors’ piety. Until the 1630s, St Martins in the Fields borrowed tavern pots of pewter from local vintners to serve its several thousand communicants, before Arch-bishop Laud attacked the practice, forcing the parish to buy costly silvergilt jugs in their place.

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The dilemma for Christians, that beautiful vessels made of costly materials are somehow distracting and inappropriate for the Church when there are poor and needy in the world, is posed in the Archbishop’s foreword: ‘Does the exuberance of skill and imagination itself display the overflowing extravagance of divine love, addressing human poverty at another level?’ What is striking is how the cathedral treasuries, many part-funded by the Goldsmiths’ Company, continue to attract visitors. It’s also fascinating to see how many beautiful objects have been commissioned in the past half-century. Church attendances are dropping, yet a significant percentage of Britons describe themselves as Christian, and enthusiasm for fine craftsmanship, symbolism in ornament and the desire to beautify worship evidently continues.

The Goldsmiths’ Company has taken an unfashionable theme of great artistic and historical interest, and explored it with imagination and scholarship. The effort invested to win the support of parish councils across England is a significant factor in its success. Accompanying the exhibition is a handsome book edited by the exhibition curator Timothy Schroder, plus several insightful conferences.

‘Treasures of the English Church: Sacred Gold and Silver 800–2000’ is at the Goldsmiths’ Hall, Foster Lane, London EC2, from May 30 to July 12

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