In Christian churches, the act of communion has always been the most important religious ceremony. Traditionally congregations wished to have the very best communion vessels that they (or their richest members) could afford. As a result Dorset churches have a wealth of beautiful and rare collections of silver, some of it so valuable that it has to be stored in bank vaults. A new exhibition at Dorset County Museum provides a rare opportunity to see some of the finest pieces in both Dorset and the UK.
The new temporary exhibition in the Museum’s Victorian Gallery tells the story of Christianity for over 2000 years – from Pre-Reformation times to the present day. Crafted by world-famous silversmiths, the pieces include the Coombe Keynes Chalice from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – an object of huge national importance.
Dorset appears to have had a strong Christian community as far back as Roman times. An example of this tradition is a Roman spoon from Dorchester with the “fish” Christian cipher.
By the early 16th century England was a devoutly Christian country and only the Priest was normally allowed to take full communion. He drank wine from a wide mouth vessel called a chalice and took bread, in the form of an unleavened wafer, from a small plate called a paten. Pieces of church silver from this period in England are rare and in Dorset only three pieces survive. All of these can be seen in the exhibition including the Coombe Keynes Chalice which has been said by the Victoria and Albert Museum to be one of the finest in the country.
Many consider the 18th century as the greatest period for church and domestic silver and Paul de Lamerie is generally accepted as the greatest silversmith of the time; some say of all time. On display is one of the three silver-gilt communion sets made by de Lamerie for Dorset churches. There is also a letter, dated June 1737, which records instructions on how to clean the silver as directed by Paul de Lamerie, himself.
In the mid-1800s a new Anglo Catholic movement wanted to bring more powerful emotional symbolism and energy to the Church. More elaborate church interiors were introduced and the design of communion ware moved to a more mediaeval style. The chalice on show from St Peter’s church Parkstone is a fine example of the richness and ebullience of this style. The chalice is inlaid with semi-precious stones and has a diamond cross on the front, reputed to be from necklace owned by the donor.
“This exhibition contains some of the finest pieces of church silverware in the country,” said Jon Murden, Director of Dorset County Museum. “We are grateful to all the Dorset parishes which have loaned items for us to display. We hope many people will be able to see these hidden treasures before they go back into safe storage.”
In addition to silver chalices, patens and flagons, there are other fascinating items including a very rare bread knife for cutting communion bread. Accompanying the exhibition is a booklet describing Dorset’s ecclesiastical silver and the development of Christianity in Dorset since the 4th century.
The exhibition will be formally opened by the Bishop of Sherborne, Dr. Graham Kings, and will run at Dorset County Museum from 13th October 2014 to 18th April 2015.
The award-winning Museum is open Monday to Saturday, 10.00am to 5.00pm until the end of October when it closes daily at 4.00pm.
For more information please Tel: 01305 262735 or visit our website at www.dorsetcountymuseum.org.