The Ramsey Abbey Incense Boat and Censer, England, Silver and Silver Gilt, Medieval and Renaissance, room 10, case 13, Muse ref: M.269-1923 and M.268-1923 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The silver-gilt censer and incense boat, exhibited side by side in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, are extremely rare survivals of 14th-century English, ecclesiastical, goldsmiths’ work. Almost all comparable objects were confiscated and then melted down, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-41), as part of the English Reformation. Miraculously, these two pieces escaped that fate. They were discovered in 1850, embedded in mud, together with some pewter and pottery, when Whittlesea Mere, a fenland area of Cambridgeshire, was drained. Perhaps they were hidden purposefully, to save them from Henry VIII’s greedy officials, or, more probably, they were lost accidentally, prior to the 16th century, whilst being transported, and were thus preserved for posterity. No other silver incense boats survive from gothic England, and only one other English gothic censer, made from gilt copper alloy, is known.
Censers and incense containers were essential components of any medieval church’s battery of liturgical vessels, and are used, to this day in liturgy. Incense vessels were often designed as boats that carried a precious cargo below deck, in holds accessed, as here, via a hinged door. The incense was spooned onto glowing coals placed in the base of the censer, which was often circular, surmounted by a removable, pierced top of architectural design. In this example the top imitates a centrally planned Chapter House. Chains attached at top and bottom allowed the censer to be swung energetically to and fro, emitting clouds of fragrant smoke which conjured the presence of the Holy Spirit for a congregation. A wide variety of items were censed, ranging from Eucharistic vessels, during the celebration of a Mass, to bishops, when they were consecrated.
The Ramsey Abbey Censer, England, Silver and Silver Gilt, Medieval and Renaissance, room 10, case 13, Muse ref: M.268-1923 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Both the censer and incense boat are made from silver, indicating that they were high status commissions. Both demonstrate a wide range of goldsmiths’ techniques common across Western Europe in the late Middle Ages. The censer’s base, and the main body of the incense boat, were hammered, or forged into shape. The pierced top of the censer, and the finials, at either end of the boat, were cast, using the lost wax, or cire-perdu technique. Both items were gilded by smearing on a paste of mercury and pieces of gold leaf and then heating them until the mercury evaporated, and a thin skin of gold was bonded to the silver beneath. The censer is entirely gilt, the incense boat is “parcel” or partially gilt, to accentuate details such as the double roses that decorate the deck. These flowers provide a useful lesson in the need to exercise caution when interpreting medieval imagery; they may look like Tudor roses but more likely to be blooms symbolic of the Virgin Mary.
The Ramsey Abbey Incense Boat, England, Silver and Silver Gilt, Medieval and Renaissance, room 10, case 13, Muse ref: M.269-1923 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Minutely rendered ram figure-heads embellish the stern and prow of the incense boat. Each sports a curled gilded fleece, sharply pricked ears and handsome spiralling horns (one is now missing). Sheep and wool were a vital part of the late medieval English economy, but these rams are not celebrations of economic prosperity. They are visual puns, or rebuses (singular, rebus), a type of word-play much enjoyed by medieval patrons, that identified the individual or institution associated with a commission. In this instance the rams seem to refer to Ramsey Abbey, a wealthy Benedictine monastery only seven miles from Whittlesea Mere, which sported three ram’s heads on its coat of arms. Undulating lines engraved across the rams’ chests imply they are gliding through gentle waves, an unintentionally suitable detail given that the incense boat spent many centuries in a watery location!
These two incredibly rare survivals remind us of the splendour of the medieval pre-Reformation liturgy, and proclaim the skill of 14th-century English goldmsiths, who were a match for their frequently praised Continental cousins.
“Twenty Objects for Twenty Years” is a series of articles written by tutors and students of the Late Medieval to Early Renaissance Year Course, exploring some of their favourite pieces in the V&A’s extensive Renaissance collections. You can find the rest of the series along with other posts from the Learning Department at the V&A on their blog.