Dorset’s Church Treasure: Telling the Story of Christianity through the Centuries

17th Century Chalice from SwanageAn exhibition of Ecclesiastical Silver at Dorset County Museum, Dorchester from 13th October 2014 to 18th April 2015.

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.

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The Altar Frontal from Wool Church

From the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 55 1934, an article written by the G. DRU DRURY, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., F.S.A entitled ‘The Altar Frontal From Wool Church.’ (Read the 21st day of November, 1933.)

This interesting frontal is made up from portions of mediaeval vestments, which local tradition would have us believe came from the neighbouring Cistercian Abbey of Bindon.

In the year 1886 the Vicar and Churchwardens of the Church of the Holy Rood, Wool, placed it with the Dorset County Museum, and being extremely fragile, it was carefully repaired by Mrs. Stillwell the following year.

The descriptive references by Hutchins and his continuators are scanty and inaccurate ; and the fact that, during the 47 years our museum has sheltered this fine example of mediaeval embroidery, no adequate description has been attempted can only be regarded as a reproach, with the object of removing which this paper has been written.

Several doubtful points were cleared-up by a visit to the Department of Textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum, with a photograph of the frontal; and I take this opportunity of recording gratefully my indebtedness to Mr. C. E. C. Tattersall for his kindness and courtesy on that occasion.

The most gratifying fact established was that the embroidery is undoubtedly English, though the velvet was probably all imported from Italy.

Most of the work dates from the end of the 15th century; and some of it may even be 16th century, the figures on the second and fourth strips being just about as late as any pre-reformation type.

The  Altar  Frontal from Wool Church

The Altar Frontal from Wool Church © DCM

The frontal is composed of eight approximately equal vertical strips joined together to fit an altar 4ft. 6ins. in length by 3ft. high. These strips differ both in design and material, four being of velvet and four of linen, but in the latter case, not all of the same texture.

The first strip (from the left-hand side) is of blue velvet, the pile of which has nearly all worn off. It is embroidered with coloured silks and gold thread in a design of “fish flowers” and sprays. The name” fish flower” is derived from the fancied resemblance of the central portion to the inverted body and tail of a fish. The rich blue of the velvet still survives in the centres of the two flowers and where it has been protected by the sprays here and there. It is not difficult to imagine this as part of a sumptuously decorated chasuble ; in fact there is in the Victoria and Albert Museum a red chasuble of late 15th century date which is embroidered with practically the same design.

The third, fifth and seventh strips are all from one piece of velvet—probably from a cope—once a rich purple but now faded to a brown colour. The design of “pine flowers” and sprays is finely embroidered in coloured silks, the heads of the flowers being of white linen applique and worked over. Comparison with a cope of purple velvet in the Victoria and Albert Museum which, though still definitely purple, – has faded in places to a colour nearly resembling these strips, confirms this opinion as to their original colour, in spite of the fact that Hut chins mentions brown velvet. Furthermore Mr. Tattersall reminded me that though red, blue, green or purple vestments are frequently mentioned in the inventories of church goods of 1552, brown is unknown.

The  Altar  Frontal from Wool Church © DCMThe second and fourth strips are parts of orphreys made of rather coarse linen embroidered with silks in the designs of figures standing on the ground, beneath architectural canopies, the style of which dates them as late 15th or early 16th century work. Some of the orphreys of English work of this period in the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibit canopies similar to these in general form, in the character of the vaulting beneath the canopy arches, and in the round-headed recesses of the shafts.

It will be noticed that the figures on these two strips face inwards towards each other, doubtless because they formed parts of orphreys from the front of a cope, but not all the panels are complete as to their tops and bases.

Saint Matthias? © DCM

Saint Matthias? © DCM

It is not easy to determine whether these bearded figures represent prophets, apostles or saints, much less to assign them names. None of them have ecclesiastical vestments and with one exception they wear a nondescript kind of “traditional” costume, of forgotten origin after generations of copying; possibly in like manner the very identity of the persons represented may have meant little to the worker who carried on the tradition. The top figure of the second strip carries a spear and wears a large flat-topped hat, his hair and beard are white. The middle figure, who carries a long-handled axe, also has white hair and beard, but appears to have a halo rather than a hat; the upper part of his canopy has been cut off, consequently it is not certain that his position in relation to the

Moses? © DCM

Moses? © DCM

figure above is the original arrangement. The lowest figure with brown beard and small pointed hat might (as has been supposed – Hutchins’s History of Dorset, 3rd Edition, Vol. 1, p. 361.) represent Moses holding the tables of the law in his left hand and a rod in his right.

On the fourth strip the top figure with a long brown beard is dressed as a merchant with a belt and gypcière, his turban hat has a long liripipe which depends below the level of his right knee. The second figure with white hair and beard has a halo and grips a long knife and may perhaps represent St. Bartholomew. The lowest figure has brown hair and beard with ruddy cheeks, he wears a tall pointed “Steeple” hat with a broad turn-up and carries a scroll in his left hand.

St. Cuthburga, Abbess of Wimborne? © DCM

St. Cuthburga, Abbess of Wimborne? © DCM

The sixth strip is also part of; an orphrey, perhaps the central strip of a chasuble. It has been rubbed very bare of its silk embroidery, exposing the linen surface which is of very coarse texture.

Two female saints in veil and wimple are worked upon it; the upper figure bears a church in her hands, the symbol of a foundress ; the lower one holds a cross in both hands and might perhaps represent St. Helen. Their canopies are of an earlier type than those just mentioned.

The eighth strip is again part of an orphrey and is worked on linen of fine texture. The design consists of two male saints, each adorned with a blue halo, standing beneath canopies. The lower figure holds a chalice in his left hand but the object held by the upper figure is not now recognisable though it appears to terminate above in a small round knob. The canopy is only complete in the case of the lower figure, and though this resembles in some respects those on the sixth strip, it is not the same, the pediment has a more stately pitch and the diaper work is better, and a date may be assigned to this earlier in the 15th century than any of the others.

The Altar Frontal from Wool Church © DCMIt would seem, therefore, fairly obvious that the sixth and eighth strips belonged to different vestments, and it is a not incredible supposition that the sixth strip, in so far as its canopy work is concerned, may have been a rather poor copy of the eighth strip.

But there are parts of yet two more vestments incorporated in the frontal. On either side of the second strip a thin edging has been added consisting of green and gold “cut velvet” while between the third and fourth strips there is a similar edging of crimson and gold “cut velvet” Both of these are Italian and of 15th century date.

The fragments, preserved between glass in the small frame, came from the back of the Altar Frontal at the time it was repaired by Mrs. Stillwell.

With the Council’s permission I submitted them to Mr. Tattersall for his opinion, and have since labelled them in accordance with it.

The Altar Frontal from Wool Church © DCMNos. 1 and 2 are pieces of 15th century Italian velvet, doubtless from a cope. The crimson pile, which is woven on at least two warps, is cut to show a design in gold. A fine example of such a cope is to be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Nos. 3 and 4 are pieces of the green and crimson edging dividing the strips, described above. The green velvet is much rarer than the crimson. It was noticed that several of the vestments in the Victoria and Albert Museum had an edging of this material round the bottom.

Nos. 5, 6 and 7 are pieces of handwoven linen of various texture and colour, used as linings for the frontal.

To summarise briefly, it is definitely established that there are incorporated in the frontal parts of at least three vestments, probably a chasuble and two. copes, and parts of three different sets of orphreys; but whether the orphreys belonged to these particular vestments or were taken from others it is impossible to say.

Now in regard to the traditional connection with Bindon Abbey, what is the evidence?

It must be acknowledged at once that there is no real evidence and, after all, it is hardly likely that there should be; nevertheless where a strong local tradition exists in matters such as these it is unwise to ignore it.

The compilers of the 3rd Edition of Hutchins’s History of Dorset state that “it was probably brought from Bindon Abbey” Hutchins himself, in the 1st Edition, states rather more explicitly “it is most probable it belonged to Bindon Chapel and was preserved when that and the house were burnt in the Civil Wars.”

The house and chapel here referred to were built by Lord Thomas Howard (created 1st Viscount Bindon in 1559) who “raised a fair house” out of the monastery ruins. The actual position of this house and its domestic chapel cannot now be determined with any certainty, but it seems probable that it covered very much the same area as the present house within the Abbey precincts. It was burnt down during the Civil Wars about the year 1644.

A return of Church utensils in 1550 belonging to this Bindon Chapel is quoted by Hutchins, (Hutchins’s History of Dorset, 3rd Edition, Vol. 1, p. 352.) which includes a pair of vestments and an altar cloth. Perhaps this may have been the source of his idea.

In the Inventory of Church goods of 1552 (Proceedings, Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, Vol. XXV., pp. 210 &211.) the ” Chapell of Byndon ” possessed “one payre of vestments of rede & gryne saye” and “one alter clothe”

In the same Inventory “The parische of Woolle” had ” iiij payre of vestmentes with branchis of silke. ij copis with branches ” ” iiij aulter clothes ” : of which ” one cope and all the table clothes ” were allowed for the church use.

On the face of it the supposition of the late Rev. W. Miles Barnes (Ibid, p. 198.) would seem to be quite likely, viz.:—that these vestments and the remaining cope were eventually made up into altar hangings after purchase from the Commissioners, of which the frontal is all that now survives.