08 April 2014

Art for Lent (35): ‘The Great Chalice
of Antioch’ (sixth century)

The Antioch Chalice, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Patrick Comerford

For my work of Art for Lent this morning (8 April 2014), I have chosen the ‘Antioch Chalice’ of ‘The Great Chalice of Antioch.’ I first saw this treasure in early 2009 at “Byzantium 330-1453,” a major exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London highlighting the wonders of the Byzantine Empire, from the foundation of Constantinople in AD 330 to its fall in 1453.

It was held in conjunction with the Benaki Museum in Athens and was the first major exhibition of its kind in Britain for half a century. I was invited to review it for the Athens News.

This exhibit was on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, It is a Byzantine object in silver and silver-gilt, made perhaps in Antioch or Kaper Koraon (present-day Kurin). It is dated to the first half of 6th century and measures 19 x 15 cm. In 1950, John D. Rockefeller bought it for the collection of mediaeval art in the Cloisters Museum, New York, and it is now part of the collection of Byzantine silver in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This silver-gilt object was originally identified as an early Christian chalice, apparently made in Antioch in the early 6th century. It looks like a double-cup, with an outer shell of cast-metal open work enclosing a plain silver inner cup.

Soon after it was first discovered in or near Antioch shortly before World War I, the plain silver interior bowl was described as a chalice, and was even claimed as the Holy Grail or the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. However, experts at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford University and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, have since identified it as a standing lamp, of a style of the 6th century.

The followers of Christ were first called Christians in Antioch (see Acts 11: 19-26), and it was such an important city in the early Church that it was as one of the five Patriarchal sees, alongside Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Rome.

Before its restoration, the ‘Great Chalice” had several small punctures or holes. The interior bowl is of plain silver, enclosed in an elaborate footed shell.

One theory suggested it may originally have been two cups: a plain, inner cup fused to the outer, much finer shell.

The vine with grapes forming the foliage-like pattern of the gilded shell shows birds, including an eagle; animals, including a lamb and a rabbit; and 12 human figures holding scrolls and seated in high-backed chairs. Two of the 12 figures are thought to be images of Christ. The other 10 have been variously identified as 10 of the 12 Disciples, or classical philosophers who, like the Old Testament prophets, had foretold Christ. Writers such as the 6th century chronicler Malalas of Antioch sought to link classical philosophy and Christianity (see ‘The Death of Socrates’ on 5 April 2014).

The identification of the ‘Great Chalice of Antioch’ with the Holy Grail was never sustained or considered seriously by scholars, and at times its authenticity has been challenged. It was originally classified as a 6th century chalice or Eucharist cup. It is shaped like an up-turned bell, and at first glance it could be taken for a large ministral chalice, like the Ardagh Chalice, now in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

By the mediaeval period, elaborate chalices or ministeriales (ministral chalices) such as the Ardagh Chalice, which can hold considerable amounts of wine, were used for special feasts when large numbers of people would attend celebrations of the Eucharist.

However, the depth and steep angle of the sides of the Antioch Chalice make it an awkward shape to drink from, especially from the bottom of the vessel, without spillage. Since the 1980s, a number of archaeologists and art historians have seen it as a liturgical lamp, probably crafted in one of the silver workshops near Antioch sometime in the 6th century. Its decoration may have been inspired by Christ’s words, “I am the light of the world” (John 8: 12; John 9: 5) or “I am the true vine” (John 15: 1).

It is said to have been part of a treasure of liturgical objects found in 1908 that belonged to the Church of Saint Sergios in Kaper Koraon, south-east of Antioch. The people of Saint Sergios may have bought this object in Antioch as a donation for their church, or it may have been used in one of the churches in or near Antioch.

The history of this piece of Byzantine silver is summarised in a paper in the Royal Academy Magazine at the time of the London exhibition six years ago. It is “a 20th century adventure story” set in the exciting time when archaeological discoveries and scientific studies seemed to offer insights into Biblical and mediaeval narratives and precious objects were unearthed and traded without regulation, when “educated adventurers” combined their search for treasures with the hope of promise of fame and riches … role models for a future Indiana Jones.

The ‘Antioch Chalice’ was discovered around 1908, and at first it was said to have been uncovered accidentally by workers digging in a well in an old quarter of Antioch, perhaps at the site of a cathedral, although it is now likely that the find occurred near rather than in Antioch.

Akthough the circumstances may be credible, reports of precious objects being found accidentally by workers who does not recognise their true worth until they pass into the hands of experts is frequent in seeking in the provenance of many archaeological objects – yesterday’s story of the ‘Bosworth Crucifix’ is one such example.

The ‘Antioch Chalice’ was soon acquired by the Kouchakji family, Syrian antiquities dealers who owned a gallery in Paris and had a wide network of wealthy collectors. They sent the object for extensive restoration in 1910, and then in 1914, as World War I loomed, they sent it on to New York and began to seek a buyer.

It was put on display with an amount of fanfare in the Hall of Religion at the Chicago World Fair (1933-1934). At the same time, in books, papers and pamphlets published by the Kouchakji firm, Gustavus A. Eisen, a Swedish-American antiquarian, speculated about the object’s early date, two-level construction, describing an inner cup with a protective outer shell, and hinting at the bizarre idea that was the Holy Grail or the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. The owners, again a respected family of antiquity dealers, did nothing to discourage the interest this suggestion had provoked.

It went to be exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum and the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, in 1936, at the Worcester Museum in 1937, and at the Baltimore Museum in 1938. By the 1940s, many publications were linking it to the Holy Grail, and it was allegedly offered to religious institutions on condition that they be properly displayed and venerated.

In 1950, John D. Rockefeller bought the ‘Antioch Family’ from the Kouchakji family, along with many other objects, for the collection of mediaeval art in the Cloisters Museum, New York. It was later moved to the collection of Byzantine silver in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

But the speculation about the original use of the ‘Antioch Chalice’ continued. The journalist and novelist Thomas Costain (1885-1965), who also had an interest in Richard III and the Plantagenets (see the ‘Bosworth Crucifix’), used the ‘Antioch Chalice’ as the model for his novel, The Silver Chalice (1952). In this novel, Joseph of Arimathea commissions Basil of Antioch, a young pagan silversmith, to provide a silver chalice to house the cup used at the Last Supper. In the course of his work the young craftsman seeks out the followers of Christ in order to sculpt their likenesses for the chalice. As the story unfolds, he finds both adventure and romance with a beautiful Christian girl and becomes a Christian.

The book was on the New York Times best-seller list for 64 weeks from 7 September 1952 to 25 October 1953. In 1954, Paul Newman, in his first studio role, starred as Basil in a feature film adaptation of the book.

In 1986, Dr Marlia Mundell Mango of Saint John’s College and Institute of Archaeology, Oxford, suggested that the original hoard came from farther south than Antioch, and that the object is most probably a liturgical lamp, without its original glass lining.

Another chalice found in the same dig can be seen in the British Museum. This silver Early Byzantine silver chalice from the Kaper Koraon treasure dates from the early 7th century. A few years after this chalice was first seen, it was offered for sale to TE Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) when he was staying at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo in 1913. A year later it was bought in Jerusalem by the British Museum.

Four large hoards of ecclesiastical silver, in all about 55 objects, appeared on the art market around the same time. Many of these objects were originally given as donations to the Church of Saint Sergius in Kaper Koraon, including the chalice in the British Museum, which is inscribed in Greek: “In fulfillment of a vow of Sergios and John.”

Meanwhile, the ‘Antioch Chalice’ remains a beautiful and precious object and an early example of Byzantine artwork.

In the English-speaking world, Byzantium represents political intrigue and decadence, on one hand, or, on the other, the height of cultural achievement and spiritual awakening. For WB Yeats, in Sailing to Byzantium, it embodied the mystery and splendour of our culture:

… I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium …

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come

Tomorrow: Two portraits of Emily Charlotte Meynell Ingram.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sir, In reviewing a friends estate I found a chalice which is like the
Antioch Chalice. There is also a flask with ,I think, a lead interior. It has a
saint killing the dragon, on the other side is the knight being saved. Same
lettering as the chalice around rim. Flask is flat and rectangular. Please
advise, Judy Parker 757-759-3163

Patrick Comerford said...

Without seeing this I could not possibly comment, and as you live in Virginia and I live in Ireland this is not possible. I'm sorry, but need to find an expert nearer to home. But thank you for asking. Patrick