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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

Ecclesiastical vessels


15th-century gilt bronze cross
© V & A Museum
<click to enlarge>
15th Century Gilt bronze Cross. © V & A Museum

Just as the Cistercian church was defined by the simplicity of its architecture and décor, the interior furnishings and the vessels used during the services were similarly plain and lacking in ostentation. By the later Middle Ages – and even earlier in some cases – more elaborate ornamentation was introduced, sometimes the gift of a generous benefactor. An inventory of Meaux Abbey in Yorkshire in 1396 reveals that the contents of the sacristy at this time included a large gilded silver cross, an ivory carving of the Virgin, a crystal urn with various relics, two silver crosiers, two silver thuribles, a large gold chalice, and eighteen additional chalices for the private altars.(12) Whereas early legislation allowed only one iron candelabrum, there were four or five in the church at Meaux; the one which was suspended above the choir was seemingly a mixture of gold and silver.(13)

This gilt bronze crucifix (above right) may have belonged to Abbey Dore in Herefordshire in the fifteenth century. The dark-blue enamel medallions depicted on the cross show saints Mark, John and Luke; the figure of Matthew may have been included but lost when, as it seems, the Cross was refashioned for use either in processions or in a side chapel.(14)
According to early Cistercian legislation there were to be no golden or silver crosses in the abbey churches, but only painted wooden ones.

Chalice and corporal
© British Library
<click to enlarge>
Chalice and corporal

Early Cistercian legislation stipulated that chalices might be silver, or even of gold-plate, but not of gold. This ruling was not always observed: in the second half of the twelfth century Mellifont, in Ireland, received a golden chalice and other pieces of gold and silver from its benefactors;(15) there was certainly a gold chalice at Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire, by the late twelfth century, for this was amongst the treasures that Abbot Ralph presented to Henry II, in an attempt to win the king’s favour and so recover the abbey’s lands at Micklethewaite.(16) A late fourteenth-century inventory for Meaux Abbey reveals that the community’s sacristy housed a large gold chalice and eighteen others for private altars; a number of gilded cups, which had been received as gifts from benefactors, were recorded in the abbot’s lodgings.(17)