Composite Chalice
Art Blog

A Composite Chalice Recently Repaired

The line between the sacristy collection and the art collection is inevitably difficult to draw at Campion Hall. The liturgical collection celebrates the proclamation of the Gospel enriching, and being enriched by, art and culture. The curator and sacristan are working together in the process of restoring the liturgical silver and vestments as well as conserving the chapel art and furnishings. In keeping with the principle of progressive solemnity, the liturgical use of artistically significant items from the collection will help to mark important occasions in the Church year, and in the life of the Hall. Some of the sacristy collection is too fragile for liturgical use, but of great artistic and historical value. Discussions are ongoing between the curator, sacristan and interested parties in the university on how best to display and conserve this part of the collection. This has proved so far a creative and useful collaboration: works are being catalogued and conserved and, wherever possible, rendered suitable for liturgical use.

Campion Hall has a wonderfully heterogeneous collection of altar silver, a fact that emerged when the sacristan emptied the sacristy cupboard, and the curator the collection store, in order to check their contents against the old catalogue in the art archive, and make a new one. There has also been an attempt to rationalise sacred and secular silver, and store them accordingly.  The items which have emerged so far include chunky 1960s chalices, an Elizabethan silver drinking-cup, modern enamel-work, nineteenth-century Gothic revival and one southern European baroque chalice, and even one modern jewelled chalice of silver gilt.  Several of these vessels were personal gifts to the charismatic Master of the Hall in the nineteen-thirties, and moving force behind the Hall’s art collection, Father Martin D’Arcy SJ.

One of D’Arcy’s particular missions was to foster dialogue by bringing a rich selection of Catholic art to Oxford as an aid to explaining to the University, with its long Anglican monoculture, some of the depth and riches of unfamiliar Catholic tradition. His aesthetic was highly eclectic, and a number of his acquisitions are hybrids and adaptations, notably a cloth of gold Mandarin’s robe which he found and had converted into a vestment.  One interesting item which emerged from the collection store-cupboard, from the same shelf as the brick from the garden wall of St Thomas More, was a chalice broken in two pieces, which in itself nicely expresses the spirit of D’Arcy’s work for Campion Hall. What had happened to the chalice which is the subject of this report, is that it had broken at the (already repaired) junction of old work and new work, since the chalice is clearly one of Martin D’Arcy’s composites, being a mix of old and new. The foot appears to be twentieth century, and quite firmly art deco in style. The cup and knop are Low Countries and seventeenth century (almost certainly 1619-1640) finely engraved with saints in oval cartouches: St Martin of Tours dividing his cloak with a beggar, St Thecla, and St Gertrude of Nivelles. Gertrude is accompanied by a large and well-observed rat, because she is traditionally invoked against the creatures. The building to her right is the Tower of St Gertrude in Nivelles.

The first St Thecla was the most important early Christian female saint after the Virgin. Her cult was brought from Asia Minor to Western Europe in the early middle ages. According to the Hierogazaphyliacum Belgicum, a gazetteer of relics in the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium and part of what is now France) published in 1628, the Collegiate Church of St Peter in Douai owned relics of St Thecla (p. 415). There is also an Anglo-Saxon saint Thecla who went to help St Boniface with his German mission, and ended her days as Abbess of Kitzingen c. 790, but the animals which surround the kneeling saint suggest that Thecla of Iconium is intended, since she was thrown to wild animals in the arena. A 1619 engraving by the Antwerp printmaker Hieronymus Wierix shows her with a bear and stag on the right (as in the chalice), a bull and a lion on the left. Though the chalice only includes the bull, it is probably this print which is the engraver’s source, and this gives us an earliest date for the chalice bowl. Although it would be rash to generalise from one or two examples, this is just the kind of Low Countries silver which was in use on the English Mission in the penal times, alongside unmarked work undertaken in secret by English silversmiths, and a small quantity of high-quality silver of Irish origin.

While not a word survives about the object’s history, not a mention in the Benefactor’s Book which is still the only register of the pre-war collection (often in such general terms as “a gift of one old vestment”), it would be a good guess to say that D’Arcy bought, or was given, the fine engraved bowl. His friends included P.J. ‘Paddy’ Shannon, an Irish silver expert and a generous donor to the Hall: it is he who gave us the Mary, Queen of Scots portrait and the Chinese Christian plates which are displayed in the D’Arcy Room. Shannon would be a very likely person to have spotted the quality of the engraving and rescued the piece, perhaps because the saints depicted included St Martin.

It is then clear that someone, most probably D’Arcy, commissioned a base for it. This is octagonal, and elegantly ornamented with alternating straight and waving rays, and makes no pretence of being anything but good twentieth-century work. At some later point, unfortunately, the restored chalice broke at the weak point of the join, most probably because it was accidentally dropped onto a hard floor. At this point a very rough repair was undertaken with a tin and lead solder: unsurprisingly, this repair also broke. There matters rested until the recent initiative undertaken by sacristy and collection. The curator had occasionally asked various silversmiths to estimate for the repair of the chalice, only to be met with a universal refusal to touch anything with solder in it, with the further complication of silver from two different periods “which would probably melt at different temperatures, and then we’d be left with nothing”.

As a result of the new initiative, an approach was made to the award-winning silversmith Adrian Hope, who works in the Scottish borders, and whose original work is of an intricacy and level of skill to suggest that he might be able to come up with a solution. Having assessed the considerable technical challenge before him, and the impossibility of a safe re-heating of the lead-tin solder, he has produced a frankly twenty-first century repair of great elegance and ingenuity. His solution has been to enclose the delicate joint with an octagonal silver sleeve solidly filled with resin, which has altered the shape of the stem, but created a new piece which is strongly joined, and can now enter on a third phase of useful life. We have written about this at such length, not only to share with the Hall community an example of the work constantly in hand to keep the Hall’s various collections in good heart, but because there is something cheerfully emblematic about a good repair undertaken to give renewed life to a broken object with its own story to tell about the history of Campion Hall.

-- Matt Dunch, Jane Stevenson, Peter Davidson