The symbolic and practical uses of silver have long been intertwined with the Christian faith. Despite the adaptations and changes of Christianity over the centuries, silver has remained a constant. Depending on the which denomination was prominent, each era has seen slight alterations in the way we practice this religion. With these alterations come new ceremonies, changes in taste, fluctuations in the country’s wealth, and different uses of silver.
Designs and motifs of Christian Silver
The symbols that represent Christianity are known and appreciated widely. Most historic Christian silver will feature a classic motif, such as a cross, a fish, a dove or a biblical passage. Depending on the item, these symbols might be embellished with enamel, or designed using metalwork and detailed ornamentation. Some items will be more elaborate and richer with motifs than others, and this will be a strong indicator of which era they were crafter in…
Christian Silver in the Medieval period
Roman Catholicism was the prevalent denomination during the medieval period. This meant elaborate décor and lavish worship. During this era, people chose to express their love of god through wealth and grandeur. Churches were built to impress, featuring awe-inspiring displays of art and wealth.
The silver used within the Church over this period was designed to complement this style. Colourful enamel was a popular choice and it was used to illustrate religious scenes. Crosses were encrusted with jewel and enamel, and wealthy churches boasted silver vessels and chalices. Copper, brass and pewter were the chosen materials for less wealthy churches. The general consensus during this period was, the bigger the better, and the silver was designed to mirror this.
Christian Silver in the Reformation period
Christian silver took a knock during the reformation period. Views towards how Christianity should be practiced changed, and many churches were stripped of their wealth, with silver and gold items being melted down.
The formation of the Church of England took place in the 1530s after Henry VIII was excommunicated and England cut ties with the pope. After separating from Roman Catholicism, religious practices in England became more modest and subdued. When we look at relics from this period, we find simple, understated silver designs.
During this period, iconoclasm was practiced. This meant that silver items and any other Christian relics were destroyed and melted down because of the social belief that religious images and icons were sacrilege. Sadly for historians and collectors today, this has resulted in few silver relics surviving this period.
The move away from Roman Catholicism also resulted certain — more simple — silver items coming into prominence. Communion cups are an example of this. They became more popular due to the belief of ‘transubstantiation’, which was the idea that the communion the bread and wine would literally transform into the flesh and blood of Christ within the body.
There was a lot of back and forth throughout this period: a ‘counter reformation’ movement fought back during the 16th Century, aiming to reinstate Roman Catholicism. Reinstating the Eucharist was one of the main focusses of this movement.
In the 17th century there was a renaissance of Roman Catholic worship in England. Churches once again became grand, now built in the Baroque style, with elaborate silver ornaments to match.
Christian Silver in the Victorian period
With the dawn of the Gothic era, the architecture of churches saw yet another revival. Due to this ornate style, there is evidence of the return of many pre-reformation items and motifs. The medieval church was promoted as the ‘true Christian style’ and many decorative items were revived. An example of this was the ciborium — a cup with an arched cover used to hold the Eucharist.
Christian Silver in the Arts and Crafts period
To contrast the previous, elaborate, gothic era, the early 20th century was the dawn of the Arts and Crafts style. With this period came simple designs and silver that had been crafted by hand in small workshops such as simple silver communion cups and christening mugs.
The use of silver within religious ceremonies has fluctuated over the centuries. Although many churches now opt for less ceremonial approaches, antique jewellery items are still used to signify new beginnings, anniversaries and other monumental occasions. Silver christening gifts are a great example of this, a tradition that many still adhere to today. Many children will receive a silver spoon or christening mug to welcome them into the church.
Even in a society that is becoming more secular, Christian silver retains its relevance and popularity. Those who are not themselves religious, but interested in antiques and history, can learn a lot from the study of Christian silver.