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Metalwork in the Service of the Church

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From the earliest days the Church has employed utensils and vessels of metal in its liturgical ceremonies. This practice increased during the Middle Ages. The history of the metalwork of the Church in the Middle Ages is in fact the history of the art of metalworking in general, and this is not only because the Church was the foremost patron of such works and because almost all the works that have been preserved from the Middle Ages are ecclesiastical in character, but also because until the twelfth century the works of the goldsmith were also almost exclusively manufactured by monks and clerics. But in the period of the Renaissance also the manufacture of church metalwork formed a very important branch of the goldsmith's art, and even in our own day these works are counted among those in the production of which that art can be most profitably developed; but not only the goldsmith's art, that is the artistic treatment of the precious metal, had its growth and development in the service of the Church, the base metals also, especially iron, bronze, and brass, have been largely used. As we are dealing, however, with the historical development of the metalwork in the service of the Church, we shall confine ourselves more particularly to works in the precious metals, without however entirely excluding those in the inferior metals from our consideration.


Beginning with antiquity, we must first prove that the Church did in fact make use of valuable works of metal in the most ancient times. Honorius of Autun (d. 1145) makes the remark that the Apostles and their followers had employed wooden chalices in the celebration of the holy Mass, but that Pope Zephyrinus had ordered the use of glass and Pope Urban I of silver and gold vessels (Gemma animae, P.L., CLXXII, 573). This opinion seems to have been widely disseminated during the Middle Ages; it is nevertheless untenable. Recourse to chalices made of wood or some other cheap material was undoubtedly often made necessary in antiquity as the result of a lack of the more valuable materials or during the stormy times of the persecutions, but this custom cannot have been general. If the earliest Christians believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and of this there can be no doubt, they assuredly also made offering of their most precious vessels in order that the Sacred Mysteries might be worthily celebrated.

The earliest positive notices of the use of metalwork in the service of the Church date from the third and fourth centuries. It is especially the "Liber pontificalis", which is now accessible in the critical editions of Duchesne and Mommsen from which we derive the most interesting information concerning the subject under discussion. Here we first meet with the statement that Pope Urban had the sacred vessels made of silver, which does not by any means imply that before that time they were all made of glass. Of greater importance are the accounts of the magnificent donations of valuable works in metal made by Emperor Constantine to the Roman basilicas. It would take up too much space to enumerate them all, and we shall content ourselves with mentioning a few examples.

Though not to the same extent, the other churches also were in possession of valuable metalwork for the liturgical service. The Church of Carthage, according to the testimony of Optatus, possessed so many valuables of gold and silver, that it was no easy matter to remove or hide them at the time of the persecutions (Contra Parmen., I, xviii). Ibas, Bishop of Edessa, was accused at the Council of Chalcedon (451) of having purloined a valuable chalice set with precious stones, which a pious man had presented to the church.

As to the various kinds of metalwork used in the Church, the "Liber pontificalis" mentions the following in addition to chalice and paten as in use in the lifetime of Pope Sylvester:

With this enumeration the number of metallic utensils employed in Christian antiquity is by no means complete. The centre of Christian worship is the sacrifice and the altar, for this reason it was early made of valuable material or at least covered with it. Metal plates were furthermore used to adorn the confession and the immediate surroundings of the altar. Great wealth of the precious metals was spent upon the superstructure of the altar, or ciborium, which was decorated with metal statues, with chalices and votive crowns. When Leo III had the ciborium, presented by the Emperor Constantine, restored, he employed for that purpose 2704 1/2 pounds of silver. A large amount of metal was also used for the iconostasis, a screen connecting from two to six columns; thus Leo III had the iconostasis in the church of St. Paul recovered at an expenditure of 1452 pounds of silver.

A large amount of metalwork is also required for the illumination of the basilica. Constantine alone presented to the Lateran church 174 separate articles of the greatest variety intended for this purpose. It is sufficient here to make mention merely of the chandeliers or lustres (coronae), the candelabra and lamps; they were made of bronze, silver, or gold. The Lateran church received among the rest a chandelier with fifty lamps of the purest gold, weighing 120 pounds, and a candelabrum of the same material, with eighty lamps. Even the vessels for storing the oil were sometimes made of precious metal. The Lateran basilica was the owner of three such vessels of silver, weighing 900 pounds. Practically nothing however of all these treasures has come down to us only a few small chandeliers of bronze, dating from the fifth to the eighth centuries, have been found, most of them in Egypt. There remains one more article of metal that was much used in the service of the Church from the earliest centuries, the censer. According to the "Liber pontificalis" the baptistery of St. John at the Lateran had a censer of gold weighing fifteen pounds, which was ornamented with green precious stones. If we take account then of all these articles, the conclusion naturally follows that the use of articles of metal in the service of the Church had attained extraordinary proportions in Christian antiquity.

More difficult than the enumeration of the works in metal is the description of their decoration and the technical processes employed in their manufacture, because on this point our literary sources are almost wholly silent, while of the old Christian works, which might enlighten us, but very few are extant. We must therefore, in this case also, confine ourselves particularly to the statements of the "Liber pontificalis". Here we find numerous references to images (imagines) of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, the Angels, and Apostles; in most cases it is impossible to determine whether the works were carved or cast, certain it is that both methods were employed. The statues of Christ and the Apostles on the ciborium presented by Constantine to the Lateran church were undoubtedly carved. In some cases the core of the statue was of wood which was overlaid or covered with silver or gold. Painted images also were sometimes decorated with reliefs of silver or gold. Gregory III, for example, employed five pounds of pure gold and precious stones in the decoration of a statue of the Madonna in S. Maria Maggiore. Precious stones in particular were a favourite form of decoration for articles made of metal golden statues were at times completely covered with them. When Sixtus I provided the confession of the Vatican basilica with costlier furnishings, Valentinian presented a tablet in relief with the images of Christ and the Apostles which was studded with precious stones. The baptistery too beside the Lateran church possessed a censer which was adorned with precious stones. The works in bronze were often inlaid with silver decorations. Thus the chapels of St. John received doors with silver ornamentation. This was probably a kind of niello. To obtain colour effects enamel and verroterie cloisonee were likewise employed; of these a more detailed account will be given later. We shall call attention here only to the best-known specimen that has been preserved, the pentaptych in the treasury of Milan cathedral the central division of this is ornamented by this process with the paschal lamb and the cross.

Finally, as to the workshops from which the Church derived its metalwork, there can be no doubt that they existed in all the larger cities of the civilized countries of ancient Christendom; but the cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, and especially Byzantium, seem to have been pre-eminent. There is a tendency even at the present day to consider almost all of the larger works that have been preserved as products of Eastern art. In fact a large number of works in metal were brought from the Orient to the Western countries. We mention here only a reliquary cross in St. Peter's at Rome, a present of the Byzantine emperor Justin II.

Middle ages

Byzantine metalwork

We begin the Middle Ages with the Byzantine metalwork, in order to remove at the outset the impression that the term Byzantine is used to express a definite period of time; it is used rather to denote a definite geographical circle of art and culture, that is to say, Byzantium with its immediate and more distant surroundings. There were two factors that exerted a powerful influence upon the Byzantine work: first, the almost boundless extravagance which prevailed at the imperial Court, and which, as a result of the intimate relations existing between State and Church, made itself felt also in the latter; second, the close contact with the art of the inland provinces, particularly with Persian art. The Persian, or, to use a more general term, the Oriental, influence gave rise to an extravagant seeking after colour effects in the art of metalworking accompanied by a suppression of the main object, namely the production of plastic works. To understand the latter change, we must briefly explain a few technical terms.

To give artistic form to the shapeless mass of metal the processes employed are casting and hammering or chiselling. In the former process the metal is brought to a liquid state and poured into a hollow form, which has previously been prepared by pressing a solid model into a yielding mass. Although casting must be regarded as the original mode of treating metals, nevertheless, so far as giving artistic form to gold and silver is concerned, hammering was of greater importance. By means of hammers the sheet of metal is hollowed out and in this way given plastic form. Very closely connected with hammering is the art of engraving this consists in directing the blow of the hammer not directly upon the metal but transmitting it by means of small steel chisels. It is these two latter processes that we have chiefly in mind when we speak of the goldsmith's art. By means of these the ancient art of the Occident produced its most beautiful works in metal. A different state of affairs existed in the Orient, and particularly in the home of the Mesopotamio-Persian and Syrian art, where, so to say, the hand had less plastic training than the eye a gift for colour. The glittering gold here received additional decoration by means of coloured enamels. This preference for coloured representation instead of the plastic was transmitted to Byzantium also. But it will always remain to the credit of the Byzantine goldsmith's art that it produced magnificent works in metal for the service of the Church. The process employed in the Orient and Byzantium is known as cloisonne enamel (émail cloisonné); it consists in soldering very thin strips of gold on the gold baseplate so as to form cells into which the coloured enamel paste is pressed and fused in place, the enamel combining with the metal during fusion.

In Byzantium cloisonné enamel forced the art of hammering and chiselling into a very subordinate position; enamel was used to decorate secular articles, such as bowls and swords, but especially the metalwork of the Church. The ornamentation consisted partly of decorative designs partly of figurative representations. Among the works that have come down to us there are many of a miniature- like purity, which in spite of their small size are truly monumental in conception. Of the larger works only a very small number have been preserved, the most famous is the golden altar-front (Pala d'oro) of St. Mark's at Venice. The remaining pieces are for the most part relic-cases which were suspended from the neck or placed upon the altar (examples at Velletri and Cosenza), crosses and book covers (a magnificent specimen in the royal jewel-room at Munich). From the period in which this art reached its highest perfection, the tenth and eleventh centuries, we have the so-called staurotheca (a reliquary tablet) in the cathedral at Limburg on the Lahn the reliquary of Nicephorus Phocas (963-969) in the convent of Lavra (Athos), and the lower band of the so-called crown of St. Stephen in the crown treasures at Budapest (1076-77). The terrible pillaging of the capital by the western crusaders, 1204, dealt the deathblow to this flourishing art.

Although the examples of Byzantine metalwork decorated with enamel are by far the most numerous, specimens of hammered work are not entirely lacking. In the first place we may mention two architectural relic-cases which are in the form of a central structure surmounted by a dome (at Aachen and Venice). The reliquary tablets with carved reliefs are either in the form of a small folding-altar or of a cross, which often bears the portraits of the emperor, Constantine, and his mother on the obverse, and on the reverse, the crucifixion. A distinct type of the Greek goldsmith's art are the icons; one of the most valuable is in the Swenigorodskoi collection (St. Petersburg). A rare specimen with excellent chasing, a gilded silver pyx with the crucifixion of Christ, is in the cathedral at Halberstadt (eleventh century). At only one place in the West is it possible at the present day to get an idea of the magnificence and costliness of the Byzantine metalwork, in the treasures and library of St. Mark's at Venice, which still possesses a portion of the booty of the year 1204.

Barbarian metalwork

Though the manufacture of artistic metalwork for the Church was accompanied by no difficulties in the countries of the older civilization conditions were much more unfavourable among the barbarian nations which embraced Christianity. Nevertheless we know that among them articles of metal were much used in the service of the Church. Gregory of Tours in one place speaks of sixty chalices fifteen patens, twenty encolpia of pure gold, which King Childebert took as booty in the year 531 in a campaign against the Visigoths. When St. Patrick came to Ireland, he had in his retinue, among others, three workers in metal namely Mac Cecht, Laebhan, and Fortchern. There are still in existence fifty-three small bells, tubular and box-shaped, which belong to this Irish art of metalworking; among the Franks Saint Eligius of Noyon (588-659), a goldsmith, was even consecrated bishop.

Here the interesting question arises, how these "barbarians" succeeded in producing artistic work in metal. The works themselves that have been preserved alone can answer this question. There are, it is true, but few of these the most important to be considered here are a chalice and a paten which were found near Gourdon (Burgundy) and are now preserved in the National Library of Paris, a relic-case also Burgundian, in St Maurice (Switzerland), the famous votive-crowns of the Visigothic kings from Guarrazar, especially those of Recesvinth and Svintila (631), a Gospel-cover of Queen Theodolinda in Monza, a reliquary in purse form from Hereford (now in Berlin), a Gospel-cover from Lindau (later purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan) and the Tassilo chalice in Kremsmünster (Austria); there may further be assigned to this period, because of their style the St. Cuthbert cross in the cathedral at Durham, the chalice of Ardagh, the shrines of several old Irish bells, and a number of croziers and crosses in the collection of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, and in the British Museum, London. When we consider that these works extend over a period of more than four centuries and are the products of several races it is at once apparent that we can give but a faint intimation of the character and decoration of the metalwork of the Church among barbarian nations.

The material used in the manufacture of these works is almost exclusively gold, while their artistic decoration consists for the most part of the so-called verroterie cloisonnée, a glass mosaic. The process employed in this decoration is akin to that of cloisonne enamel; the setting of the semiprecious stones or paste gems is done in one of two ways: they are either bedded between thin bands of metal like cloisonne enamel, or set in openings which are cut into the gold plate itself. At times the gold plate is completely covered with the stones. Chased ornamentation on the other hand is of rarer occurrence it is found in a crude fashion on the Hereford reliquary. That niello was not unknown to the "barbarian" nations is proved by the chalice in Kremsmünster, a present of Tassilo, Duke of Bavaria (about 780). In Irish art filigree also found a very delicate development one of the most valuable examples, one that displays a concentration of all the processes with which the native masters were conversant, is the chalice of Ardagh.

Carolingian and Othonian metalwork

The second period embraces the age of the Carolingian and Othonian emperors, i.e., in round numbers a period of 200 years. While it can hardly be said that this period added anything essentially new to the metalwork of the previous centuries, it is nevertheless true that it gave new forms and a further development to many of the articles already in use. We now also more frequently meet with works cast in bronze, whereas in the so-called "style of the period of migrations" of the preceding age it was not necessary even to mention them. With the increase in the wealth of the Church, there arose also the necessity for an increased amount of valuable metalwork, this was especially the case in the large monasteries which counted among their own members metalworkers of great artistic skill. The manufacture of the metalwork for the Church during the tenth and eleventh centuries was in fact so largely in the hands of the monks that this entire period has been designated as the period of monastic art. While France had led in the development during the ninth century, from the tenth century it gradually fell behind Germany. One of the causes that helped to bring about this result was the lively interest which several of the prominent ecclesiastical princes took in the art of metalworking as developed within the Church, the most deserving of mention in this connection is Archbishop Egbert of Trier and after him Bishops Meinwerk of Paderborn and Bernward of Hildesheim. In France the art of metalworking flourished especially in Reims, but also in Corbie Tours, and Metz. In Germany the centres of the goldsmith's art of the Church were, besides Trier, especially the monasteries at Ratisbon, Reichenau, Essen, Hildesheim, and Helmershausen.

The characteristic feature of the art of the period of migrations, the verroterie cloisonnée, gradually disappears and yields precedence to the Byzantine cloisonné enamel which flourished especially at Trier and Reichenau. The revival of the plastic tendency in metalworking was of greater importance. We have from the period under discussion even at this day several altar-decorations and book-covers with figural representations, which reveal a truly amazing skill in metal-hammering; such is the valuable antipendium of Henry II from Basle. The primitive method of covering a wooden core with thin sheets of metal was also still practiced. A Madonna in the collegiate church at Essen (Rheinland) and an image of St. Fides (Foy) at Conques, France, are the two best known examples of this art. In Italy the most important work of this period is the decoration of the high altar in the church of St. Ambrose in Milan the work of Wolvinus, executed under Archbishop Angelbert II (824-66). Prominent examples of the French metal work are the portable altar, shaped like a ciborium, and the binding of a copy of the Gospels in the royal jewel-room at Munich, which were probably made at Reims and were brought to Germany as early as the reign of King Arnulf (d. 899). Germany possesses, as evidence of a more advanced art of metalworking, four crosses in the collegiate church at Essen which reveal the powerful influence of the Byzantine art. Closely connected with Essen are the school of the monastery at Helmershausen, where the monk Rogerus wrote the first handbook of the industrial arts, "Schedula diversarum artium", and the school of Hildesheim, which through the activity of Bishop Bernward became the centre of the metalworker art in Northern Germany; the folding-doors of the cathedral with crude reliefs, a column, which is patterned after Trajan's Column in Rome, and two candle-sticks belong to this period. In France scarcely a single work of any size has been preserved; in Italy several bronze doors, for instance, those of the basilica of St. Paul at Rome (1070) and Monte Gargano (1070), are noteworthy, because they were procured from Byzantium and show the influence of the Byzantine art.

Romanesque metalwork

The golden age of the metalwork of the Church is the Romanesque period (1050-1250). We have already, it is true, mentioned above several works belonging to this age, because the various styles of art often overlap, and sharp distinctions can be drawn only by force. The characteristic which at once distinguishes the metalworks of the Romanesque period from the older works is their large size; this distinction is most noticeable in the reliquaries. For, while the receptacles for relics had up to that time been uniformly of small dimensions, they grew in the Romanesque period into large shrines, for the transport of which three or four men were necessary. Several new varieties of metalwork also were added to the old, especially the aquamanile, i.e., a vessel in the form of an animal, used for washing the hands, and the metal structures placed upon the altar; other articles assumed new forms. These changes are in part due to the evolution of the liturgy. Almost to the close of the tenth century, for instance, neither cross nor candlestick was permitted upon the altar, only small reliquary caskets being tolerated; the altar itself up to this time had preserved the shape of a table or sarcophagus. As soon as these regulations were broken and candlestick, cross, and superfrontal found a place upon the altar. this change necessarily exerted a strong influence upon the manufacture and decoration of the articles mentioned.

The material employed in the manufacture of the metalwork of the Church also experienced a change, as copper took the place of gold. Furthermore the cloisonné enamel was supplanted by the champlevé. The champleve enamel differs from the cloisonné by the small cells intended to receive the enamel not being made in the Byzantine fashion by means of strips of flat gold wire soldered to the gold plate, but by being dug out of the plate with a burin. A peculiarity of the workshops of Limoges (France) was the affixing of the heads of persons or even of the entire figure in high relief. The design in the figures themselves was for the most part filled out with coloured enamel. A second difference consists in the more frequent occurrence of plastic ornamentations in silver. Of course plastic decorations, as we have already seen, were not lacking in the earlier periods, but the Romanesque period gave a mighty impulse to this branch of the metal worker's art and can show many extraordinary productions, for instance on the shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne. Lastly, a third difference is apparent in the ornamentation, in that secular types of decoration are now more and more used on articles intended for the Church. On a reliquary at Siegburg (near Cologne), for example, apes, deer, dogs, and naked men are represented; the well-known fabulous creatures of the Romanesque art also win a place for themselves in the art of metalworking.

The evolution in style may be briefly characterized as follows: the monastic art of the previous period with its Byzantine tendencies is subdued but not entirely supplanted by the popular tendency; the two rather enter into a close union which we designate as Romanesque art. Monuments of the Romanesque art in metals still exist in large numbers, but these are almost exclusively works of ecclesiastical origin. This is due not merely to the fact that the churches, which have been correctly called the oldest museums, have guarded their treasures more carefully than the worldly owners; it is rather to be ascribed to the fact that at that time the metalwork for secular purposes was a practically negligible factor. We must not infer from this, however, that in the Romanesque period, as in the preceding, it was monks and clerics who were the principal manufacturers of the metalwork for the Church. During this period the art of metalworking, as well as the plastic arts in general, gradually passed into the hands of the laity. A number of Benedictine monasteries, it is true, still clung to the old traditions of the order, and remained centres of artistic pursuits

By far the largest amount of ecclesiastical metalwork of the Romanesque period is to be found in Germany, where the art of metalworking created magnificent works in the districts bordering on the Rhine and the Meuse. On the Rhine the Benedictine monks Eilbert (1130) and Friedericus (1180) of the Benedictine monastery of St. Pantaleon produced several reliquaries and portable altars which they decorated for the most part with enamel. They were far surpassed by the laymen Godefroi de Claire and Nicholas of Verdun, who combined plastic ornamentation and enamelling with amazing perfection. They are the creators of the two most beautiful reliquaries of this whole period; Godefroi wrought the shrine of St. Heribert at Deutz (1185), and Nicholas the shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne. In France likewise the art of enamelling was zealously cultivated, especially in Limoges, where small articles of metal for church use were manufactured in large quantities and exported in all directions.

The art of casting also can show several famous names such as Reiner of Huy, who cast the well-known baptismal font at Liège, and Riquinus of Magdeburg in whose workshop the gate of the cathedral at Novgorod was probably manufactured (1150). All these works are surpassed by the beautiful baptismal font at Hildesheim, the work of an unknown master. Italy has almost nothing to show from this period, except a few bronze doors, which enlighten us to the position of casting in bronze; such are the doors of Barifano of Trani in Ravello (1179), and the doors of Monreale (1189) and of Bonano at Pisa (1180).

Gothic metalwork


The Gothic epoch (1250-1500) brought numerous changes and new requirements, also in church metal vessels. In this period the feast of Corpus Christi was first introduced (1312), and thereby a new metal vessel, the monstrance or ostensory, made necessary. For this purpose a vessel was employed like those which up to that time had been in general use for exhibiting relics. Another vessel, which came into use at this time and upon whose manufacture great stress was laid, is the "pax", or "osculatorium" (instrumentum pacis). The growing veneration of saints and relics required an increase of reliquaries. One of the results of this was that these were no longer made as large and costly as in the Romanesque epoch. Combined with this was the striving for constantly new forms of reliquaries, among which busts in particular now became very popular. The early Gothic altars with double folds or wings became in fact small galleries of busts of the saints. The number of cast statues of the saints and of the Blessed Virgin also increases very considerably from the fourteenth century. The material as well as the technique and decoration of the works of the goldsmith again experience a change. Copper, which has been almost a necessity for the bulky Romanesque reliquaries, now gives way to silver; this is employed especially for the figures in relief which were then much used, and which served more frequently than in the Romanesque period as statuettes for the decoration of shrines.

Very intimately connected with this change of material was an alternation in the mode of ornamentation. The champlevé enamel had lost its power of attraction, and indeed it could not very well be used upon the thin sheets of silver translucent enamel therefore took its place; this was applied by cutting the relief-like representation in the silver ground and pouring a transparent enamel over the relief, so that the different parts according as they are higher or lower produce the effect of light and shade in their various gradations. Siena has long been regarded as the starting point of this new mode of ornamentation, because a chalice in Assisi made by the Sienese Guccio Manaja about 1290 is the oldest example of this process. From Italy it early spread to Germany, where it flourished especially on the Upper Rhine, and to France.


The features of the religious metalwork of this age that more than any other distinguish it from the earlier productions are the superstructure and construction; the same difference prevails as between a Romanesque and a Gothic church. The ponderous Romanesque style is replaced by a pleasing lightness and mobility of form. However in the art of metalworking as in the other arts we must carefully distinguish within this period between the early Gothic work and the late Gothic. Only the early Gothic work may be described as possessing so to say, an aristocratic character, a certain ideal striving after the sublime; like the fairest period of chivalry, however, this striving lasts but a short time; it soon gives way to the homely and real actuality. The late Gothic metalwork throughout lacks the idealism of the early Gothic. This likewise is connected with the cultural development. The common people, who had grown in power, took pride, as the nobility had done before, in securing for themselves a lasting memorial by means of religious foundations and presents to churches. To dedicate magnificent, artistically executed works, however, their means were in many cases insufficient, thus giving rise to many works in metal of poor workmanship, especially chalices, monstrances, and reliquaries. So far as lightness of the structure in particular is concerned, this peculiarity is again best recognized in the reliquary and also in the monstrance. Very frequently since the fourteenth century the form chosen is that of two angels kneeling upon a base-plate and supporting the reliquary, sometimes holding it in a horizontal position as a casket, sometimes vertically as a tower. In Germany there are two excellent examples of this inverted position, two reliquaries in the cathedral treasures of Aachen which are constructed in the form of chapels with towers abounding in openwork, and are borne by saints. Reliquaries in general assumed the form of churches in miniature; gabled hood-mouldings, pinnacles, finials, crockets, rampant arches and buttresses, in short the whole architectural scaffolding of the early Gothic cathedral are found in the shrines, of which the most important is the reliquary of St. Gertrude in Nivelles, the work of Nicholas in Douai and Jacquemon de Nivelles (1295). The same is true of the remaining works in metal.

The architectural ornaments forced themselves also upon articles on which we would not expect them; thus the knob (nodus) of the chalice often became a small chapel with many sharp corners and edges making the handling of the chalice more difficult. Likewise, the popular plastic figures were placed upon articles of use that require a heavy formation, such as book-covers. A beautiful silver book-cover from the Benedictine convent of St. Blasien in the Black Forest is studded in this way with numerous figures of saints; they are found even upon the smaller articles of use, as upon a cloak-clasp in the cathedral of Aachen. The manufacture of the religious works is taken more and more out of the hands of the monks and clerics, who now furnish only the ideas, and gradually passes altogether into the hands of the lay goldsmiths. By this statement of course we do not wish to imply that there were not individual artists still active in the convents, for that remains true even to the present day, but for the development of an entire period they are of no moment.

Among the few works of France, that have been preserved, the so-called "golden horse of Altötting" attained great fame; it is a half-worldly, half-religious ornament representing the veneration of the Madonna by King Charles VI, whose horse in the lower part of the picture is held by a squire (1404). In Germany we can find no evidence of such exactly defined schools of art as in the Romanesque age; the works still in existence are exceedingly numerous, especially busts of saints and chalices. In contrast with the preceding epochs Italy now took a pronounced lead in the execution of artistic metalwork for the Church; the Italian works are compact, they favour a strong substructure, which permits the application of the favourite translucent enamel; there is evident also a tendency to excessive ornamentation, whereby the fixed forms are almost suffocated. Among the schools of Italy Siena was at first pre-eminent; from this city the goldsmith Boninsegna was called to Venice in 1345 to make repairs there to the Pala d'Oro of St. Mark's. Sienese masters also began in 1287 the silver altar in the cathedral at Pistoia, which was finally completed in 1399 by Florentine goldsmiths and is the largest piece of work of this kind. The masterpiece of the Florentine school, the silver altar of the baptistery, was begun in 1366 by Leonardo di Ser Giovanna and Berto di Geri; this too was not completed until one hundred years later, when the Renaissance had already fully entered into Italian art.

Bronze casting also continued to produce numerous works for the service of the Church. North Germany and the Netherlands (Dinant) were most prominently active in this field. Here we must mention first of all the numerous baptismal fonts of bronze, which are decorated on their outer sheathing with representations in relief and architectural ornament, next the seven-armed candelabra, door-knobs, water-vessels (aquamanile), lecterns, especially the beautiful eagle-lecterns. In Germany the names of many of the masters have been handed down; in Wittenberg, Wilkin (1342), in Elbing, Bernhuser, and in Lubeck and Kiel, Hans Apengeter. Lastly mention should be made of the bells which were also cast in bronze. While Germany distinguished itself by its religious works cast in bronze, it was surpassed by France in another branch of the metalworker's art. Here in the beginning of the thirteenth century the art of the smith passed through its first period of full vigour. At that time, thanks to the highly developed technical processes, France produced metalwork for the doors of churches such as has never been produced since. Germany, England, and the Netherlands felt the favourable influence of the French art, which produced its magnificent works on the cathedrals at Rouen, Sens, Noyon and especially on the cathedral at Paris. Here every wing of the folding doors has three iron bands, that serve also as hinges, divided into a thousand branches and decorated with birds of every kind and fantastic creatures. In addition to the metalwork of the doors the blacksmith furnished the Church with artistic chandeliers, railings, pedestals for the Easter candle, lamps, and lecterns. The first place in the manufacture of artistic railings undoubtedly belongs to Italy, where the high perfection attained by the art of the Italian blacksmiths may best be seen in Florence (Sta Croce), Verona, and Siena.


While the religious metalwork in the Gothic style had increased in quantity often at the expense of quality, a decided retrogression in respect to quantity is noticeable during the Renaissance. This is especially true of Germany. The distressing religious agitations, the defection of many of the faithful from the old religion and the increasing indifference to religious faith had the effect of reducing the production of articles for church use to very small proportions. In Italy, it is true, we know the names of numerous artist goldsmiths — there are about 1000 of them — but there also the number of religious works of the Renaissance is very small. At the head of the new movement in metalwork for the Church we find the most distinguished sculptors, in fact the leading masters of the Renaissance preferred to execute their work in metal (bronze); we need mention here only the names of Ghiberti and Donatello, the former the creator of the famous bronze doors of the baptistery at Florence, the latter the maker of the high altar in bronze in II Santo at Padua as these works however belong to the domain of sculpture we must leave them out of consideration here.

The changes in style follow the course of the general evolution in art. The vertical forms of the Gothic style give way to the horizontal tendency, the forms become more vigorous and compact, the vessels acquire a more flexible silhouette. However, the early Renaissance left the forms of the commonest vessels, the chalices and crosses, almost untouched, inasmuch as the tradition of a thousand years made them appear sacred; we have numerous chalices of the Renaissance the base of which shows the Moorish and Gothic foils and the knob, the Gothic rotuli. Not until the late Renaissance were the circular forms and volutes generally employed. In other respects the customary Renaissance ornaments, which are by no means the least charm of this style, are employed in ecclesiastical and worldly articles indifferently. Putti, hermae, caryatides, garlands, grotesques, acanthus leaves, furthermore the elements taken from architecture, such as columns, pillars, capitals, entablatures, balusters form an inexhaustible source of constant change.

Silver during the Renaissance no longer maintains the position it won for itself during the Gothic period. Several distinguished religious works in silver have been preserved, but they are far surpassed both numerically and artistically by the works in bronze; the latter are often covered with silver or gold. The artistic ornamentation of both ecclesiastical and secular metalwork consists especially of delicately executed representations in relief, which at first appear in moderation at the more important points, but later presumptuously cover the entire surface. At the same time enamel is very frequently employed, sometimes the previously mentioned translucent enamel, which completely covers the portions in relief with a coloured surface, sometimes also the Venetian enamel, which flourished from about 1500-1550. It was used to coat jugs and bowls, candlesticks, candelabra, and ciboria. Another favourite form of decoration consisted in the combination of metals and crystals this type of decoration occurs during the Middle Ages, but was more systematically and artistically carried out in the Renaissance. The art of gem engraving likewise was again practiced after ancient models upon cameos and gems. The ecclesiastical works of the Renaissance therefore often represent an enormous value. We need mention here only the value of a few papal tiaras. A tiara, which Sixtus IV had made by the Venetian goldsmith Bartolomeo di Tomaso, was valued at 110,000 ducats. Julius II confided to the Milanese jeweller Caradossa the making of a tiara valued at 200,000 ducats (nearly 200,000 dollars). Hardly any works of really marked importance, if we except the previously mentioned altars in Florence and Pistoia, the completion of which falls in this period, have been preserved from the Renaissance. We may again mention a few reliquaries at Siena, which reveal a pronounced change compared with the monumental shrines of the Romanesque and Gothic periods. They are silver caskets with sides in openwork, permitting a view of the relics. The use of crystals is exemplified in a beautiful pax from Monte Cassino (now in Berlin).

Elsewhere the influence of the Renaissance upon church metalwork was early apparent. In the beginning only the non-essentials were borrowed from the Italian Renaissance; it was the ornament that was copied; the fundamental forms long remained Gothic. To the above-mentioned types the Germans added especially the scroll work, which was by preference combined with the Moresque and then served as a pattern for the surface; it is not unknown in Italy, but in Germany it held almost undisputed sway for about thirty or forty years. In Germany during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the cities of Augsburg and Nuremberg gained extraordinary fame by the manufacture of artistic metalwork; their products were eagerly sought after throughout the entire world. The Augsburg goldsmith, George Seld, in 1492 furnished one of the first Renaissance works in Germany, a silver altar in the Reichen Kapelle at Munich; here we find nude putti, flowers growing out of acanthus calyces, friezes, and panels which breathe wholly the spirit of the Italian Renaissance. A goldsmith of Nuremburg, Melchior Bayo, in 1538, by order of King Sigismund I of Poland, made an altar of chased silver which is in the chapel of the Jagellons in the cathedral at Krakow. Besides these there are no religious works of any importance from this period. As is proved by the "Book of Holy Objects" of Cardinal Albrecht of Mayence, a few prelates indeed were intent on increasing the treasures of their churches in the new style, but as a rule the exigencies of the times did not permit the manufacture of larger works in metal. So far as the smaller utensils are concerned, these, even as late as the middle of the sixteenth century, still show Gothic forms as, for instance, a chalice of the well-known Gebhard von Mansfeld, Archbishop of Cologne, in the "grünen Gewölbe" at Dresden (about 1560). All the works of this period are surpassed by the productions which the goldsmith Anton Eisenhoit made about the year 1590 for Theodor am Fürstenberg, Prince-Bishop of Paderborn; these are a chalice, crucifix, book-cover and a vessel for holy water. The articles are most exquisitely ornamented with noble Renaissance forms done in flat chasing. The most beautiful works of the Renaissance in Southern Germany, reliquaries, chalices, monstrances, etc., are in the Reichen Kapelle at Munich. France, like Italy, has a large amount of documentary evidence of the manufacture of metalwork for the Church, but the endless wars of Louis XIV and the Revolution consigned them almost without exception to the melting-pot. A chalice in the church of St-Jean du Doigt (about 1540), which has a stout knob transformed into a chapel, and the cup and base being covered with clumsy tendrils, is the only work which we are able to name here.

Besides the works of the goldsmith's art, the productions in base metal must not remain entirely unnoticed. These came not rarely from the workshops of the goldsmiths. The most important foundries were in Florence and Padua. It is not always easy to distinguish between the works of sculpture and those of the industrial arts. Certainly a large number of magnificent bronze railings belong to the latter — the most beautiful is in the cathedral at Prato, the work of Bruno di Ser Lapo Mazzei (1444) — as do also the candelabra, which, because of their elegance of form and delicate ornamentation, are very effective. The best known specimen is the excessively ornamented candelabrum in Il Santo at Padua, the masterpiece of Riccio (1516). From bronze there were also manufactured for the service of the Church Sanctus bells, candlesticks, vessels for holy water, hanging lamps, about the details of which we need not here concern ourselves. We merely add that the works in iron are confined more particularly to the railings in the side-chapels of the larger churches; they are of no interest, however, from the standpoint of the history of art.

The last periods of church metalwork can be concisely described. Like the whole of the baroque art, the metalwork of the Church of this epoch, when compared with the delicately balanced regularity of the Renaissance, also shows a certain clumsiness and unrest, which in the rococo develops onesidedly into absolute irregularity, to be changed in the Classicism which followed, into the exact opposite, a pedantic, inflexible rigidity. These peculiarities of the new styles do not, of course, find expression in the goldsmith's art to the same extent as in the plastic arts. Nevertheless this evolution is not wholly lacking even in the smaller church utensils it may, for instance, be clearly observed in the chalice, which in the baroque style is overloaded with broad, clumsy ornaments; in the rococo the forms become more delicate, all the parts assumed wavy lines, false and genuine gems and porcelain paintings formed the decoration; Classicism discarded these baubles and produced chalices of the severest forms and with straight lines.

In France, which during this epoch set the fashion in Europe, the Court and a number of prominent individuals devoted enormous sums to provide valuable church furniture, at times in such a way that true art was lost in splendid display. In a completely equipped "chapel", which Cardinal Richelieu presented to the crown in 1636, there was a cross, ornamented with 2516 diamonds of various kinds, a chalice and a paten with 2113 diamonds, a madonna with 1253 diamonds, altogether 9000 diamonds and 224 rubies were employed in furnishing the chapel. The Sainte-Chapelle at Paris was presented by the "Chambres de comptes" with a reliquary one metre in length, for which they paid 13,060 livres. New metalwork was at that time produced in larger quantities in Germany, which in this art especially maintained its pre-eminence. Indeed it is the time of the so-called Counter-Reformation, which in Southern Germany and Austria beheld the erection of so many magnificent churches. The new houses of God, however, required new metal furniture. To the present day the treasure rooms of many a cathedral — and convent — church are filled with the crosses, candlesticks, and antipendia that were made at that time; they are remarkable, however, for their size rather than their artistic qualities; the material is mostly silver. But works of art of great excellence are not entirely lacking. The Abbey of St. Blasien formerly owned an antipendium portraying the passage of the imperial army through the Black Forest in the year 1678, a most beautiful piece of work (now in Vienna). Other examples of the zeal employed in the manufacture of precious metalwork are the reliquary shrine of St. Engelbert in Cologne, dating from 1633, which shows the saint lying prostrate on the cover, and statues of bishops on the sides, but otherwise only architectural forms; also the shrine of St. Fridolin at Säckingen (Baden), characterized by the complete mobility of its lines, and furthermore the valuable monstrance in Klosterneuburg near Vienna, which is in the form of an elder-tree (1720).

Probably at no time was so little money expended upon religious furniture as during the period of Classicism; it is the age of barren Rationalism, which was practically devastating in its effect upon the liturgy and religious life. To devote large sums to the acquisition of precious furniture was not in consonance with the spirit of this age. For this reason candlesticks and even monstrances were not infrequently made of tin or wood, but to preserve appearances, often coated with silver or gold. We do not desire, however to leave this period with this gloomy picture. In the baroque period the art of the blacksmith reached its second climax in Germany and France. Under the hammer of the smith the inert mass began to sprout and blossom. The superb choir-railings, lanterns, candle-stands, and chandeliers show to the present day that the art of the blacksmith in the service of the Church was at that time spurred on to the highest endeavours. The revival of the styles of the Middle Ages during the nineteenth century proved beneficial to the religious metalwork also. At the present day candlesticks, chalices, monstrances are manufactured, which in costliness and purity of style are not inferior to the best works of ancient art. Moreover the tendency toward the creation of a new style is noticeable also in the art of metalworking. Whether this is to be crowned with lasting success, is a question for the future to decide.

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APA citation. Kleinschmidt, B. (1911). Metalwork in the Service of the Church. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Kleinschmidt, Beda. "Metalwork in the Service of the Church." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler. Images scanned by Wm Stuart French Jr.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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