…about a monstrance
December 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
fig. 1. Anonymous. “Monstrance,” silver gilt, 17th century (Denver Art Museum).
Cleverly positioned—in the center of an upper gallery floor at the Denver Art Museum—is the small silver gilt monstrance pictured in Fig. 1., its exact dimensions are not listed, but it looks to be about 16-18” tall, with the diameter of the base around 6-8”. This little monstrance is placed amidst dozens of other pieces of Spanish colonial silver from all over the Americas. This specific piece is from Peru and was made anonymously sometime in the 17th century.
What is a monstrance, you ask? The New Catholic Encyclopedia describes a monstrance as
A liturgical vessel used for showing the Blessed Sacrament at exposition and benediction, and in processions. Its name and the alternative name of Ostensorium are derived from the Latin words monstrare and ostendere both meaning ‘to show.’
Although it is tempting to dive into its historical background as a piece of Spanish colonial silverwork, that history will have to serve as a background to a basic formal analysis. With this in mind, we still have to pay some attention to its form as a religious object and to its relative position in the history of art in general. The fact that it is a display receptacle for the host—a paper thin wafer of fine bread, said to symbolize the body of Christ—is enough to suggest that its form follows its function. Yes, the motto ‘form follows function’ was a popularized during the modernist period of art history in the 20th century. However, this object is not modern per se. If a clear style can be attributed to the piece, it would have to be the Baroque, or better said, the Colonial Spanish Baroque. As we already know, the Baroque is a style that was often characterized by elaborate surface ornamentation coupled (usually) with a strong sense of dramatic movement. This piece does exemplify some of these stylistic motifs in moderation.
On the website Sancta Missa, A.J. Schulte gives a few of the many rigid prescriptions as to how a monstrance must serve as a proper host receptacle, where the upper part, that actually encapsulates the host, must have as its outer frame “the most appropriate form […] of the sun emitting its rays to all sides.” Although in this case, the ornamented pierced eight pointed star doesn’t exactly look like sun’s rays, it does serve as an effective way to bring the utmost attention to the centered circular viewing capsule. Schulte also gives permission to the adoring angels at the stem “…it is appropriate to have two statues representing adoring angels.” In this case, the silversmith seems to have strayed from these liturgical rules and instead of two angels, we have six adoring angels. In addition to the full-bodied angels on the stem, the surrounding star frame includes four tinier adoring angel faces. Incidentally, because of its small size overall, we will assume that this portable monstrance was intended for a small church with a limited budget. Annoyingly, the top piece is bent forward. It would not take too much restoration to make the crooked straight, so as to give this monstrance an ordered appeal, as it is exhibited it looks ever so slightly broken, despite the prominent position given to it in the center of the gallery.
The overall lines of the monstrance are fairly simple. We have a circle atop a line with a proportionate horizontal base that is roughly the size of the filigree star frame itself. The monstrance is entirely symmetrical on both sides (with the slight variations of the all angel’s gestures), this lends to its harmony as a visual object. It has a predictable Platonic order. This symmetry was probably enhanced when the Monstrance was placed on an altar, in situ. And even now, the symmetry is further referenced in the way it is strategically displayed at the museum, flanked by the evenly spaced vitrines on either side of it, with it in the center, in its own vitrine.
This naturally leads us to the shape of the object, which has everything to do with its explicit purpose—that is, to venerate, uphold, display, enshrine and to adore the host. As we have discussed already, the sun’s rays, or better yet, the star shaped frame is eight pointed and this holds the center crystal as the ultimate focal point. The stem is multi-tiered and lathed. This complicated stem, as with any well-made stem of this kind, is direct evidence of the labor it took to fabricate it. The Baroque style demanded such a devotion to intricacy. The six angels must have been affixed after the stem was complete. They are somewhat rough-hewn without much exacting attention given to a making them appear too lifelike and cherubic. They look like winged apparitions who are suddenly appearing out of the blue, like supernatural birds, to help the faithful to cherish the symbolic body of God in the form of a delicate wafer of bread under glass.
Its color is golden silver and the texture of the monstrance is vividly detailed, smooth and metallic. Although the silver is gilt, the gold has partially worn down, probably due to its vigorous cleanings over the centuries. This means that the surface is also highly reflective and bright. Silver is precious because it takes a polish so well, another reason we like it has to do with its malleability. Silver takes any form a talented silversmith imagines. Gold and silver are liturgical metals. They are highly reflective and under the candle light of mass they glisten and look esteemed. All of these metallic qualities are valuable, hence their widespread use for formal occasions in and out of the church. When the Eucharist is placed in the monstrance to be adored, it is given a position of great importance because it is housed in this beautiful metal. Here is this specially made silver and gold object surrounding the very thing that is an expression of those who have taken to the faith. It is a vehicle of faith. This is a form of devotional hardware.
It must be said that one need not be a Christian to look at and admire this brilliant object. If we didn’t comprehend the religious component of art, we would have to excise generous swathes of art history. Yes, artistic expression can thrive without religiosity and religions can be effective without their materialism, but can we exclude the attention to either art or religion when we seek to know about those who have worshipped before us? The formality of this gleaming monstrance speaks to the contrary.
 New Catholic Encyclopedia, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2003), s.v. “Monstrance.”
 A.J. Schulte. “Ostensorium – Monstance” Sancta Missa, 2010. http://www.sanctamissa.org/en/sacristy/sacristy-sanctuary-and-altar/ostensorium-monstrance.html