Sunday, 1 March 2015

Shrines of the Blessed Eucharist : 2

Although reservation of the Blessed Sacrament is of great antiquity in the practice of the Church, the oldest and primary purpose of reservation is formally stated in the 13th canon of the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) : "With respect to the dying, the old rule of the Church should continue to be observed which forbids that anyone who is on the point of death should be deprived of the last and most necessary Viaticum."

In this post, we wish briefly to trace the manner of reserving the Blessed Sacrament in the Western Church.

Hanging Pyx
A Eucharistic pyx made in Limoges France
first half of the 13th century.
This pyx was designed to be suspended above an altar.

In the Collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The first official regulation for reservation in the Western Church comes from the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, when it was already the custom to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in cathedrals, parish churches and the chapels of religious orders on (or more usually) near the altar. The Council did no more than direct that the Reserved Sacrament should be kept with strict care under lock and key. There appears to be no reliable evidence before the year 1000, or even later, the Blessed Sacrament was kept in churches in order that the faithful might visit it or pray before it.

As to the manner and place of Reservation during the early centuries there was no great uniformity of practice.

In the early mediaeval period, caskets in the form of a dove or of a small tower made for the most part of one of the precious metals, were commonly used for the purpose, but whether in this period these Eucharistic vessels were kept over the altar, or elsewhere in the church or in the sacristy is not clear. But after the tenth century the most common usage in England and France seems to have been to suspend the Blessed Sacrament in a pyx or dove-shaped vessel over the High Altar. Nevertheless, fixed and locked aumbries were also found.

Sacrament House
Sacrament House in the church of Saint Denis
Rheine, Germany, late 15th century.
This splendid construction, which is still used for the
Reservation of the Blessed Eucharist
is located just outside the sanctuary in the northern transept.

Germany and the Low Countries developed the Sacrament House, an elaborate structure of stone and metalwork, usually standing a short distance away from the altar on the northern or Gospel side of the sanctuary.

A 14th century English Aumbry of the Blessed Sacrament
St Peter's Anglican church, Claypole, Lincolnshire:
The aumbry, set into the chancel wall,
is enriched with stonework in the Decorated Gothic style.
Image :

A cupboard or Aumbry in the wall of the sanctuary was customary in parts of Italy, Portugal, Sweden, Scotland and elsewhere. They were most frequently enriched with stonework and polychrome work.

The reforms following the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563) prescribed a Tabernacle fixed to the centre of the altar. But earlier usages were not formally forbidden. Furthermore, specific Chapels for the reservation of the Blessed Eucharist were arranged in Cathedrals and Greater Churches, separate from the Sanctuary. After Trent, the tabernacle became the usual mode of reservation in all Catholic churches, although there were exceptions in Germany and Belgium, where the old sacrament houses were permitted to be used.

High altar in the Church of Saint Euphemia,
Ravenna mid 18th century.
It was not untypical for High altars in Italy to have tabernacles
which resembled miniature temples in the classical style.

The term tabernacle to denote this kind of receptacle fixed to the altar for the reserved Sacrament was introduced by the reforming bishop of Verona, Matthew Giberti, about 1525 and his ideas were later endorsed by the Council of Trent.

Further posts in this series will discuss each of these methods of Eucharistic Reservation. For this post, we have adapted essays in the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1911) by Father Herbert Thurston and in the Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (1972) by Archdale A King.