A glass paten discovered in Spain

Remember how sternly the instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum (article 117) forbade the use of glass Communion vessels? It was REPROBATED! Horrors. How could anyone foster disrespect for the Eucharist by using such fragile materials as GLASS??

Well, oops.

Archaeologists in Spain (working in excavations in the province of Jaen, in Andalusia) have discovered a glass paten dating probably from the 4th century. It is made of green glass and is beautifully engraved with images of Christ in majesty with two disciples, whom the researchers identified as Peter and Paul. All are beardless. This paten is wonderfully preserved and has been designated one of National Geographic’s “discoveries of the year.”

This isn’t the only ancient glass liturgical vessel around, either. Pope Zephyrinus (198-217) decreed the use of glass vessels, the Liber Pontificalis tells us. And the practice of using glass communion vessels hung on through the fourth century according to the Cambridge Medieval History (there’s a glass paten in the British Museum).

Well, what do you know. I guess some of our forbears in faith were not so horrified by glass as we are supposed to be today.


  1. How is that an “oops”? How many glass patens have been found? Or is it just an unfortunate inconvenience that glass breaks so easily, being the cheap material it is, that the archaeologists can’t find more examples of it? (Irony: case proved.)

  2. Rita, I’m afraid I don’t see your point. Our forebears were horrified by women serving at the altar (e.g. Pope Gelasius) yet that doesn’t prevent some of us from insisting on allowing female altar servers.

  3. I don’t think the argument was made that glass was never ever used in the history of the church. The variety of materials employed in earlier times is quite well attested.

    This did remind me, though,of the comment by Forse in “Ceremonial Curiosities”. Sadly the free version has been taken offline, but here is the quote which I looked up:

    “It is indeed hard to say what is, and what is not, permitted in the Catholic Church. I always understood that Pope Zephyrinus (A.D. 199-217) forbade the use of glass chalices. But I saw a glass chalice and a glass paten at the Cathedral of Sens in May 1924: and five years later, in May 1929, I saw in the Tresor of the Cathedral at Monza a chalice carved from a single sapphire. I admit this does sound like a “traveller’s tale,” but it is literally true. “

  4. I must agree with Stanislaus on this one. Using obscure historical relics to justify liturgical practices will lead to all sorts of bad liturgy. People may even use this selective reading of archeological evidence to justify such bad liturgical practices as fiddleback chasubles and lace albs…

    1. @David J Wesson – comment #4:
      Sure, if not for the little fact that fiddlebacks and lace albs never completely fell out of use and were never forbidden, hence no justification is required to use them. Why there’s even a photo of Papa Bergoglio wearing a fiddleback.(prior to popehood)

    2. @David J Wesson – comment #4:
      Somehow, this seems less a historical justification and more a modern tweak at “precious” sensibilities.

      The operative principle is that the consecrated elements touch (only) special materials. A high christology in tension with the reflection that Jesus comes for sinners, not princes. The use of glass or ceramic may be in turn, partly cheapskatery, partly reflective of the humble Christ. But not likely to be intentionally insulting to the Lord.

      When princes of the Church make the rules, they reflect on Christ as a prince above others: God made in their own image, as it were. Is that appropriate, fitting, and “precious”?

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #10:
        Historically and from the symbolic point of view, it has always seemed strange to me why our Medieval ancestors and since make such an effort ‘to see the host’ (elevation, adoration etc) and not the contents of the chalice — the Blood of Christ. It took historically 100 years to decide to even ‘elevate the Chalice’ after introducing the ‘elevation of the host’.

      2. @Jeffrey Pinyan – comment #15:
        I covered this on my own site last year.

        I think Redemptionis Sacramentum can be criticized on this point. It says too much, and perhaps too little. Given that, I would have no intention of discontinuing the use of precious metals if I were in a parish that used them. Nor am I inclined to replace the non-precious, but sturdy and unbreakable metal vessels my parish currently uses.

        Glass that is well cared for does not break. Pure gold or silver can be warped or bent rather easily if their handlers get cocky or inattentive.

        Best practice would be a parish commissioning an artist to craft vessels, rather than buy something from a catalogue. If RS were interested in serious liturgy and art, it would make suggestions along those lines. Is it reverent if a thousand parishes are using the same ten thousand chalices?

        I agree with the principle of not using “mere containers.” I think the best judges of this are liturgical leaders and artists/artisans of local parishes, within the guidelines of “extraordinary” usage. I think we can trust people not to use ceramic coffee cups, styrofoam, or plastic.

        I don’t see a problem with fine ceramics. Or glass art. I think I have more of a problem with metal that imitates gold, possibly including gold plating. Gold or silver plate presents a vessel as something it’s not. It’s kind of like a lie. I’d say that brass or pewter are better without the plating.

        If the faithful embrace a low christology, a Christ of the poor, and find ceramic, glass, crystal, or less than precious metal suitable in their eyes, that’s good enough for me. Let’s also remember that we use glass for images of Christ. And ceramics. And pigments. And cloth. And a lot of materials that need care and attention and are easily damaged.

  5. In all seriousness though, who would argue that a truly well made glass vessel is less “worthy” than a cheap metal one made of stamped brass or some other cheap metal merely because it is not metal?

  6. Glass has, until recently, been a precious material, difficult to manufacture and requiring great skill to shape. It is only natural that it would be regarded as worthy material for Eucharistic vessels. It also does not oxidise like metal, even though more fragile, therefore a better symbol of incorruptability. Our most precious and delicate scientific instruments either are of glass or contain central glass elements (including the silicon glass substrate, the computer chip, making this blog possible). The article quoted does not give a date for the patten, that would be interesting.

  7. I own and use a finely crafted Waterford crystal chalice. It is clearly a precious vessell worthy to contain the Blood of Christ. The visibility of the sacramental sign, I believe, enriches the rite. The material is strong. Could it break is not the question but has it broken. Answer….no.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #8:
      Metal chalices can also break when dropped… as I have witnessed when a young altar server dropped a semi-precious metal chalice (empty) onto marble steps and the cup snapped off from the stem.

  8. For those who can get to the Cloisters Museum on Manhattan Island NYC there is a 13th century glass chalice and paten (green tinted,and with evidence of use) on display in the treasury room (and at least one other in the cabinets in the hallway leading to the treasury). The last time it was at Sens they had not one but a whole cabinet of ‘lead crystal-glass’ tulip- shape chalices and their patens from the 17th and 18th century on display in their treasury. Sens also has a conical green vestment which belonged to the visiting Archbishop of Canterbury (now Saint) Thomas Becket.

  9. Was “disrespect” meant to be “respect” in the question “How could anyone foster disrespect for the Eucharist by using such fragile materials as GLASS??”

    Redemptionis Sacramentum 117, for reference, with my emphases in bold.

    Sacred vessels for containing the Body and Blood of the Lord must be made in strict conformity with the norms of tradition and of the liturgical books. (cf. GIRM 327-333) The Bishops’ Conferences have the faculty to decide whether it is appropriate, once their decisions have been given the recognitio by the Apostolic See, for sacred vessels to be made of other solid materials as well. It is strictly required, however, that such materials be truly noble in the common estimation within a given region, (cf. GIRM 332) so that honour will be given to the Lord by their use, and all risk of diminishing the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species in the eyes of the faithful will be avoided. Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily. This norm is to be applied even as regards metals and other materials that easily rust or deteriorate. (cf. GIRM 332; Inaestimabile donum 16)

  10. There’s nothing surprising here; we’ve long known that both chalices and patens used to be made of glass (for at least as long as we’ve had copies of the Liber Pontificalis). It would be the basest archaeologism to conclude that glass vessels are acceptable in the present day simply because they were employed in past centuries. The question isn’t “did someone respectable ever use one of these things?” but instead “how would their use correspond to our current understanding of ‘fitting’ and ‘worthy’ materials or the due diligence necessary to show respect for our Lord?” At any rate, as Stanislaus’ example only began to advert, I don’t think Rita would feel very comfortable with a complete restoration to 2nd century liturgy. We should all be able to agree that we think the Church capable of “maturing” its views on optimal liturgy, even if we disagree about whether specific alterations reflect such maturation.

    1. @Aaron Sanders – comment #17:
      I think the crux of the issue is to what degree is intervention by the CDWDS helpful in terms of better liturgy. It seems to boil down to disagreement and a sense of acceptance: I would never use (blank) for a chalice, but I can respect the discernment that went into its choice.

      In a healthy Church, this discovery would make us go, “Hmm,” and we would return to our usual sacristy preparations.

  11. At the time of Jesus the Greeks and Romans had perfected the mass manufacturing of glass drinking vessels. These were most common throughout the Mediterranean world. There are so many fragments of that glass that in the popular archeological journals someone is selling jewelry made of “Ancient Roman Glass” it is quite possible that Jesus could have used just such a glass drinking vessel at the Last Supper.

  12. My thanks to all who have pointed out the nobility and artistic excellence of well-made glass, and also for the additional historical examples of glass communion ware.

    Several commenters seem to want to argue that if one adduces an historical example of anything it means (A) that archeologism results, and/or (B) that one must accept all historical precedents or none of them. These are ridiculous contentions, refuted by countless examples of modern liturgical scholarship and pastoral decision. I will not bother to argue these points.

    I do wish to respond, however, to those who don’t seem to understand the point of my post. The censoriousness of the prohibition of glass communion ware in Redemptionis Sacramentum — categorizing this substance under considerations of respect for the Eucharist, and reprobating its use wholesale — seems not to have been noticed by some of our commenters, but it is there. It is this censoriousness which my post takes a poke at.

    Todd Flowerday has it exactly right. If Redemptionis Sacramentum were really interested in good liturgy it would be talking about quality and artistic worth, but not sweeping all glassware off the table, so to speak, and into the rubbish heap of reprobation.

    Is it really a “maturing view” of the liturgy that leads to the reprobation of glass communion vessels? Not as I see it. It is, rather, a short-sighted, impoverished view — one that trusts pastors little and trusts the ingenuity and art of skilled craftsmen even less. The fact that a third century pope, and others through history, have not been limited by this impoverished view should encourage us.

    There have been very good recent examples of glass, which were all junked because of this instruction. If somehow we could magically transport that amazing 4th century paten to an altar today for Eucharist, we would be prohibited from using it. And that is a shame.

  13. Rita is correct. The argument should be about beauty, not materials. There are hundreds of glass and crystal chalices from the early centuries of Christianity in museums across Europe, and no one has ever suggested that the early Christians were somehow wrong to use them. Likewise there are many vessels from later periods made out of pewter or other “base” metals.

    While beautiful glass chalices are relatively common in the US today, they are little-known in Europe. There, beautiful pottery and ceramic vessels, both chalices and patens, abound. I believe that this is what RS was primarily tilting at. RS’s argument that materials should be “truly noble” ignores cultural context. We often refer to “precious metals”. The important part of that phrase is the adjective, not the noun. Glass crystal, ceramic and pewter vessels can be just as precious as those made of metal. It’s the design that counts.

  14. One of our previous bishops, Patrick Cooney, may he rest in peace, read that particular paragraph as forbidding cheap glass. He continued to permit the use of glassware, as long as it was substantial and crafted for the liturgy – think Meyer Vogelpohl. The cathedral used this glassware up until the installation of now Archbishop Hebda. As my current parish doesn’t have enough metal cups for the people at the major over flow Masses (Christmas/Easter), we dust off the glassware twice a year. There are always comments made on the beauty of seeing the Precious Blood.

  15. Another thread that I think I am glad that I missed… But a great post, thank you so much Rita. And others! I think of two things…. one is the beauty of glass vessels in the light. The second is that whole “cup of the carpenter” thing. But hey, that is just me.

  16. #22…exactly. If one celebrates a Mass with children or high schoolers for that matter, then to me glass is fitting because for these highly visual learners and practitioners, they can see the Precious Blood. With metal of any kind, the only who can see the Precious Blood is the presider. Let those who watch intently at Mass and, for the most part process information that way, see what it is they are following. For youth and let’s be honest, many adults, the ability to see (the Host is held high not the Ciborium) is an aid to prayer that cannot be lightly underestimated.

  17. These discoveries of yours from antiquity are really stirring things up, Rita. “Precious chalice” refers to heresies? The ancients used glass Communion vessels?
    The Catholic churches in my hometown have dutifully substituted metal vessels for their glass and ceramic ones. I think most of us can accept that. It’s just that some of these set-aside vessels, at least in some parishes, were works of love from artists in the community, beautifully made, and not in violation of any standards when they were introduced—but our brethren at CDWDS, with all that reprobating, implied that those who made and used them were impious scoffers. It was just so—so rude.

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