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Updated on April 23, 2010
Photo by Krzysztof Isbrandt
Photo by Krzysztof Isbrandt

A chalice, in modern ecclesiastical usage, the liturgical vessel containing the consecrated wine of the Eucharistic rite. In the Middle Ages chalices had a somewhat wider range of functions; the ministerial chalice dispensed the wine to the congregation when communion was still taken in both forms (that is, both bread and wine). Vessels of this type were generally of gold or parcel-gilt silver; humble materials were forbidden. Large offertory chalices were placed in churches to receive wine donated by the faithful. In baptismal rites, a special chalice was used for mixing the candidate's symbolic draft of milk and honey. Funerary chalices were available for placement in the tombs of the clergy.

The early Christians borrowed their chalice forms from the vessel shapes in standard use during ancient times. There were two main types. One had a base, stem, and a tall cup; the other also had these features, but the cup was broad and flanked by two handles. A striking example of the first type is the Antioch Chalice, a late 4th or early 5th century piece now exhibited at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This chalice has two silver cups—a plain inner one set in an outer cup which is decorated with an openwork pattern of grapevines encircling figures and animals. In later versions of this type the base was enlarged to form a visual and functional counterpart to the cup. This altered version appeared in the 8th century Tassilo Chalice, with figures outlined in black in the niello technique. This chalice is displayed at the Abbey of Kremsmunster, Austria. The second type, which became rare by the 10th century, is best seen in an 8th century Irish work, the Ardagh Chalice, now in the National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin.

In the Gothic period of the 13th to the 15th century, the cup became smaller, while the stem grew higher and the central knop, or decorated nob, more prominent. These changes not only reflected the desire for greater ostentation, but also represented a change in the liturgy, in that communion was normally taken in one form only. The Renaissance saw a further increase in decorative richness, with the stem and knop developing a variety of lobed and sculptural shapes. In this way the original significance of the cup was obscured. It is not surprising that modern artisans have reacted against this trend by producing chalices of an austere simplicity closely akin to the functionalist work of other modern designers. Early medieval chalices, such as the Merovingian Grimfridus Chalice in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection in Washington, D. C., have served as patterns for these modern pieces.

Before chalices may be used in the Roman Catholic Church, canon law prescribes that they be consecrated by a bishop or abbot.


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