Looking closely at objects can tell you a lot about their purpose or history, particularly those used in Christian worship. Many Christian objects are adorned with references to Christian beliefs, such as scenes from the life of Christ or the deeds of venerated saints. The amount of decoration, or lack of it, can also tell you something about the beliefs of the people who used the objects.
Until the 16th century, Roman Catholicism was the universal faith of the western world and Latin was its language. Church rituals were complicated, requiring a range of richly decorated vessels, vestments, crosses and images. Many were made of gold or silver and adorned with enamels or gems. These precious materials symbolised the reverence due to God, but less wealthy churches had to use cheaper vessels in copper, brass or pewter.
The medieval church would have looked far more colourful than churches today, with brightly enamelled metalwork used in the Mass, painted chapels and stained glass windows. Many of the people attending ceremonies could not read, but they could decipher religious imagery. Church vessels in silver and gold are relatively rare, as so many were melted down during the Reformation to be re-made into communion cups.
The Reformation in England
English Reformers returned to a simpler, more direct form of worship. Their boldest move was to reject the Roman Catholic belief in 'transubstantiation', in which the bread and wine are miraculously transformed during the Mass into the body and blood of Christ. They proposed instead a symbolic service of shared communion, conducted in interiors stripped of distracting furnishings and images. The congregation would play an active role in the communion, regularly taking wine as well as bread, whereas before they had been chiefly spectators.
Crown commissioners confiscated or destroyed much of the goldsmiths' work of the medieval church. Some parishes concealed or sold their silver before the commissioners arrived, but by the early 1550s, many were left with just a single cup and paten. Some churches had no precious metal at all.
The Counter Reformation
The 16th century was a period of intense self-examination for the Roman Catholic church. Internal dissent was undermining its authority and whole nations were going over to the new Protestant faiths. To clarify its role, the church held the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563. It addressed concerns about religious education, abuses of wealth and the relief of the poor. The Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) became the champion of the reformed Catholic church and promoted the faith worldwide.
At the heart of this Counter Reformation was the need to restore the Eucharist to the centre of worship. In Catholic belief, the Eucharist enshrines the moment when bread and wine, consecrated at the altar, are transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
The image and message of the reinvigorated Roman Catholic church were actively promoted through dramatic architecture and furnishings. Throughout the 17th century new churches were built in the grand Baroque style.Their sumptuous interiors were complemented by elaborate monstrances, candelabra, sanctuary lamps and censers. Awe-inspiring altar silver drew the eyes of the faithful towards the Eucharist.
After the Reformation, the Roman Catholic faith was severely restricted. Catholics who refused to attend Church of England services were known as recusants and until the late 17th century they had to worship in secret. However, the Dukes of Norfolk and aristocratic families such as the Arundells at Wardour Castle encouraged Catholic communities to use their private chapels and so kept the faith alive.
The Catholic plate that survives from before the 1660s is mainly limited to chalices, paxes and pyxes. These earlier pieces are rarely hallmarked as they were kept away from the eyes of authority. After 1688, Catholic plate was more often hallmarked and the range of forms expanded to include sanctuary lamps, cruets and incense boats.
In London, Catholics could worship openly in foreign embassy chapels. During the reign of Charles II, Catholic courtiers could also attend the queen's private chapel and that of the Queen Mother, Henrietta Maria.
In England, Christians who chose not to conform to the doctrine, organisation or ceremony of the established church became known as Nonconformists or dissenters. To avoid persecution, many went to the new colonies in North America.
In formal terms, Nonconformity began with the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which required priests to use the Book of Common Prayer and declare allegiance to Anglican bishops. Radical clergy and congregations refused to comply. Church leaders faced imprisonment, transportation or death.
By 1700, there was greater tolerance so Nonconformism became more widespread. Its organisation differed from the Anglican church. Instead of bishops, Congregationalists were governed democratically by their members, whereas Presbyterians had elected elders. Methodism, which emerged in the 1730s, established authority in a conference of church members. Although Methodists accepted many Anglican teachings, some groups such as Baptists, Presbyterians and Independents pursued a very personal approach to religion, emphasising freedom of conscience.
In the Victorian period a dramatic and profound change took place in religious life. Centred on a renewed interest in the Middle Ages. This affected the appearance of churches and how services were conducted. The influential architect A.W.N. Pugin promoted the Gothic as the true Christian style. Although Pugin was Catholic, his theory appealed to Anglicans of the Oxford Movement - radicals who hoped to restore pre-Reformation services to the Church of England.
The Cambridge Camden Society, founded in 1839, studied the past to identify the medieval architecture and furnishings that would be appropriate for the revived services. The society became an arbiter of style, offering an Anglicised version of the Gothic.
Also, by the 1870s some of the equipment normally used in Catholic worship, such as the ciborium, was appearing in Anglican churches. But it was not universally welcomed. Some observers found the incense, the altar cross and the emphasis on ritual scandalously 'Popish' or 'high church'.
In Europe, the Gothic revival owed more to nationalism than religious zeal. The completion of Cologne's medieval cathedral was an affirmation of German culture. In the Habsburg empire, Czechs and Hungarians similarly expressed national pride through Gothic architecture.
Champions of the Gothic claimed by the 1850s that the style was triumphant in Europe. But classical architecture remained a serious rival, even in church building. Much of the most important Gothic work was in church restoration. In Germany and France, goldsmiths like Franz Xaver Hellner supplied Gothic church furnishings.
The 20th-century church
In the late Victorian period two architects-turned-craftsmen, Henry Wilson and Charles Robert Ashbee, initiated a decisive shift towards individual craftsmanship in church silver. This led to a sharp fall in the standing of commercial manufacturers but provided a steady source of work for many designer-silversmiths that has lasted into the present day.
This revival of craftsmanship came out of the Arts and Crafts movement, one of the greatest social and artistic forces of the age. Favouring small studio workshops and simplicity of form, the movement set the pattern for church silver throughout the 20th century, whether for major cathedral commissions or for parish churches.
Contemporary silver Throughout its long history, the church has been an active patron of the goldsmiths' trade. Today, silver is no longer a material used in everyday life. The church, however, still has a need for silver for liturgical use. Many churches commission silver as a way of commemorating anniversaries or marking new beginnings. Both Lichfield Cathedral (in 1991) and York Minster (in 2000) have commissioned pieces in recent times.
Saints and symbols
Like most religions, Christianity has a rich language of images and symbols. This iconography would have been clearly understood in the past but may be less familiar to modern eyes.
Though often decorative, the symbols used on religious metalwork also refer to the function and significance of objects. The contemplation of religious motifs can draw believers into a deeper understanding of their faith or explain complex theological themes in a visual form. A chalice, for example, might be adorned with the tools used in the crucifixion (the 'Instruments of the Passion') to direct the viewer's mind towards Christ's sacrifice and his death on the cross.
The use of images has caused controversy throughout Christian history. While supporters held that imagery glorified God and helped believers understand their faith better, critics attacked its use as superstition and idolatry.
Images of Christ
Figures of the crucified Christ appeared on crosses in about 800 and became known as crucifixes. Small crosses were most likely used in chapels. The metalwork collection in the V&A contains figures of Christ separated from their original context. They were probably once attached to processional crosses. These figures show the different ways European artists interpreted the image of the crucified Christ
Gifts to the Church
Churchwardens also took pride in commissioning new silver and often contributed to the cost. Occasionally, gifts were made to win support for a political cause.
Not all of these gifts were new. Old-fashioned domestic silver, often richly decorated with secular ornament, was welcomed and used for the service of communion or the collection of alms.
The contemplation of one's beliefs can be an intensely personal and private experience. In both Catholic and Protestant traditions we find objects were made as an aid to personal prayer. They include small shrines, personal prayer books and devotional images. Reliquary pendants act as a focus for devotion through the relics or images of saints they contain, while the rosary provides a discipline and structure for private prayer. These pieces are often treasured personal possessions, passed down through generations.
The history of the church around and beyond the eastern Mediterranean is complex. The earliest churches were established in Antoich, Alexandria and other cities in the 1st century. They were independent communities and theological controversy sharpened their differences.
In the year 330 Constantinople (now Istanbul) became the capital of the Roman Empire. Successive bishops of Constantinople, later given the title of patriarch, gradually won authority over other eastern churches, despite the opposition of the pope. Churches that accepted the jurisdiction of the patriarch became known as Orthodox, but others, including those of Armenia and Ethiopia, developed along separate lines.
Diversity of practice and doctrine in the eastern churches is reflected in different kinds of regalia and sacred silver. Some forms such as the chalice are common to all, indicating a shared core of beliefs.