The Chalice: The sacramental goblet of Christianity

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Verica Sitnik
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A chalice is a footed cup or goblet and is used for drinking, in religious and ceremonial practice. It may also have a particular symbolic meaning.

The drinking vessel, which was used for banquets by the ancient Romans, was a bowl fixed atop a stand.

Silver cup preserved in the Museum of the Romanian Orthodox Archbishops. Photo Credit

Chalice made of silver, in the Museum of the Kotor Cathedral‎. Photo Credit

The chalice is in particular use, holding sacramental wine in Roman Catholicism and Oriental Orthodoxy, during the Eucharist. Mostly they are made of precious metal such as silver and gold, and some of them are jeweled and enameled.

The Ardagh Chalice, from the 8th century. Photo Credit

Because the Eucharist celebration became central to Christian liturgy their use dates from the very early church. Therefore, the goblets used for the religious act of worshiping were treated with great respect. The earliest examples of the chalice have two handles on a large bowl.

It is a treasure of the Cathedral of Reims, a chalice decorated with jewelry, 12th century.

With the time passing by, the base became bigger than the bowl, probably for better stability. Official church regulations and religious traditions dictated the treatment of chalices and their construction, and even in present times, the inside of the cup needs to be gold-plated.

Lalique chalice. Photo Credit

Chalices often had a pommel or node in Western Christianity, whereas in Roman Catholicism, they tend to be tulip-shaped. In Eastern Christianity, especially Eastern Catholic churches, the footed cups are often decorated with icons and the cross. In Orthodoxy, through the act of drinking from the chalice, the believers receive both the Blood of Christ and the Body of Christ.

Chalice with gorgeous decorations. Photo Credit

To accomplish this, a portion lamb is placed in the cup and Communion is received by using a spoon. That’s the reason why the Eastern chalices had bigger rounded cups. After having received Holy Communion, in the Russian Orthodox Church, the faithful kiss the “foot” (base) of the chalice. Kissing the cup is also a part of other traditions.

The Emperor’s chalice in the treasure chamber of the town hall of Osnabrück.

 

In Christian liturgical worship, the chalice is an item which is considered to be perhaps the most sacred of vessels. The chalices are often blessed before their use, the blessing usually performed by a bishop. In the Christian tradition, Jesus used the vessel to serve the wine at the Last Supper, and this vessel is called the Holy Chalice.

Gilded copper and silver chalice, about r. 768 or 769. Photo Credit

 

The chalice of Charles Ferdinand, with various decorative details.

There is no historical evidence for the Holy Chalice, only a traditional belief. However, there are a few standing cups of precious materials which are locally believed to be the Holy Chalice. An entirely different tradition again concerns the cup of the Last Supper, but here the vessel is known as the Holy Grail. In one of the versions, Jesus used the cup to institute the Mass; another story says that the cup was used to collect the blood of Christ during the Crucifixion, by Joseph of Arimathea.

The stem and cup of this chalice were probably made in Germany ca. 1500 and are later than the base.

Gilt and chased silver chalice dates from 1390. Photo Credit

In worship services of Unitarian Universalism, the most widely used symbol is a flaming chalice, which symbolized the priest lighting a flame inside a chalice. The inspiration for the design of this cup was taken from the burning of oil on ancient Greek and Roman altars, made by the artist Hans Deutsch. It became an underground symbol, and it’s often surrounded by two linked rings signifying the joining of Unitarianism and Universalism.

Chalice with the inscription, “My blood truly is a libation.” It was made for the church St John the Baptist in Spain.

The chalice is also used in modern Wicca ritual. In the ceremonial performance, the chalice represents the feminine principle, and a ceremonial black-handled knife as the male principle. In some rituals of Neo-Paganism, a cup can be placed on the altar which can contain wine, water or other liquid.

This chalice is part of a silver service, and it is one of four that exist from the “golden age” of Byzantium (6th century).

The term “poisoned chalice,” referred to by Benedict of Nursia – he used it during the performance of exorcism. The term is used for a situation which appears to be good but then is found to be bad. Is not unusual for chalices to be used as heraldic devices either. The chalice also became an unofficial national symbol the Czechs, and it is part of many historical banners. In French-Canadian culture, the use of the term “câlice”( the French word for chalice) is an alternate form of cursing.