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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art for the Christian Liturgy in the Middle Ages

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 (1986.3.1-15; 47.101.26; 47.101.27; 47.101.28). The liturgy in both the Eastern and Western Church necessitated a variety of additional objects such as books, often richly decorated (17.190.134), for prayers, music, and Old and New Testament readings (1992.238); crosses for the altar and to be carried in procession (63.12; 1993.163); censers for the burning of incense; and lighting devices for the sanctuary (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.