National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 2, 1978-1979

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A Christianized and Neo-Classicized Roman tazza

by Philippe Verdier

Pages  1  |  2  |  3

Would the National Gallery tazza have been used, after the Edict of Milan in 313 granted religious liberty, for the aspersio rite of baptism, which was then combined with the immersio in the baptismal vat? In Early Christian times, both its faces, the concave inside as well as the convex outside, were engraved in intaglio with a double vine scroll. Inside, the scroll springs from a cantharus (figs 2 to 4). The design of the cantharus and the sharply pointed small leaves of the scroll remarkably resemble those on the mosaic of a funerary chapel at Ancona (fig. 7). The inscription of the Ancona mosaic explains its symbolism: Vinea Jacta est dilecta in cornum in loco uberi. (18) It is based on Isaiah 5:1 and on the prayer taken from the quotation for the eighth reading of the Saturday before Easter in Early Christian liturgy. The text of the prayer differs in details from the translation of Isaiah's passage in the Vulgate. It belongs to a series of so-called "para-hieronimian" liturgical texts extracted from the Bible. (19) The vinea dilecta - the beloved vine - means Christ's Church. (20) The tazza must have been christianized around the end of the fourth-century, the date of the mosaic. The non-symmetrical design of the engraved mystical vine clearly shows that it was an addition. Taking into account the weight of the tazza, and the difficulty of tipping it when held by its handles as has been explained, it seems unlikely that it could have been used for aspersio in the rite of baptism, in spite of a tempting parallelism with the bigger Vienna tazza.

On a great number of Early Christian monuments, the cantharus is at the same time a fountain of life and a chalice. It seems that the tazza must be classified among the vases used for offering (offertoria, vasa olfertoria), often made of gold or semi-precious stones, which accompanied chalices and patens. In the early liturgy, they were used to collect the offerings of the Mass and were brought from the sacristy to the altar when the preface of the canon was sung. (21)

Alexandrian vases were sometimes carved; Roman and Byzantine descendants were cut out of gems. The most famous of the lineage to have survived, having been adapted to the service of the mass or the cult of relics, are: Kunigunde's cup in the treasure of Bamberg cathedral; Helen's cup in the treasure of Trier cathedral; the sardonyx vase in the treasure of Saint-Maurice-d'Agaune; and, originally in the treasure of Saint-Denis, the paten with little golden fish set in a serpentine gem, the sardonyx "Ptolemies" cup, Suger's chalice and agate ewer, and an incense boat, all scattered today among the Apollo Gallery in the Louvre, the Cabinet des médailles in the Bibliothèque Nationale and the National Gallery in Washington. An onyx cup, a Venetian gem mounted in gold, which was a gift of Emperor Charles IV in 1350, is in the treasure of Prague Cathedral. (22) Other vessels received their mounts in Florence under Lorenzo the Magnificent. (23) An agate tazza from the royal treasure of France and dating from sometime between the second and fourth centuries, now in the Louvre, has an inscription in beautiful Roman capitals (or is the epigraphy Carolingian?): JUSTUS UT PAL(MA) FLO(REBIT), taken from verse 13 of the Vulgate, Psalm 91. Another was found together with the crown of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary in 1236 when Emperor Frederick II ordered the opening of the tomb. (24) In the ambo given before 1014 to Aachen cathedral by Emperor Henry II, agate paterae were reused, together with chess pieces in hard stone and two paterae of rock crystal. After restoration in 1954, only one of the paterae was found to be authentic. (25)

Medieval inventories of German churches mention: an urceus (ewer) ex onichino, a vase for the service of the Mass made of plasma "Greci operis," various chalices in onyx (agate) or semi-precious stone (in lithin), a "patera piscea" - like that from Saint-Denis? - and even an incense boat "in the shape of a toad," "de lapide onichino concavo", with an inscription in Greek. (26) Henry II gave to Saint-Vanne in Verdun an onyx pyx to be used as a ciborium for relics. (27) An onyx tazza in the former Stoclet collection in Brussels was adorned, around 900 in Constantinople, with a medallion in cloisonné enamel representing the Last Supper, and thus transformed into a paten (fig. 8). (28) The treasure at Notre-Dame in Paris included in 1593 "an agate gem broken in several places, mounted in silver gilt with a few precious stones...fashioned like a cup with a chalcedony roundel as a lid," and, in 1577, "an agate vase with a silver lip, a gilt foot, and a big crystal in the form of a stopper, fashioned like a cup." (29) Although in both cases the word "cup" has to be interpreted to me an a fairly large pyx, mounted as a monstrance, are we not invited to surmise that in the Middle Ages, once the tazza had outlived its usefulness after the changes brought by liturgy to the rite of offering, it may have been used as a container for the eucharist and placed above the altar?

The National Gallery tazza was ultimately mounted as an antique oil lamp in the time of Napoleon I by a goldsmith who, in spite of the absence of any hallmark, must have been Philippe J. B. Huguet, who was well known between 1798 and 1810 (fig. 9).(30) A kneeling Psyche (31) is pouring oil out of an urn and, at the other end, the break of the handle is hidden by the mask of Medusa, engraved with stars and an acanthus, out of which grow lotus flowers and ivy tendrils.


In "Vasi antichi in pietra dura a Firenze e Roma," an article published in the October 1979 issue of Prospettiva, no. 19,* Carlo Gasparri interprets the canthari and vine leaves on the inside and outside of the Morgan cup as being Dionysiac and expresses the view that they were intaglioed at the time the gem was fashioned. He suggests that the intaglio designs did not appear inelegant when they were filled with a trickle of gold. He hesitates to date the cup to the second century of the Roman Empire. Perhaps the gem was a reversion to the Alexandrian style, as had been the fashion in Rome since the founding of the Julian dynasty. I feel that the inclusion of the Morgan cup in the same category as the "canthari" collected by Lorenzo the Magnificent is subject to doubt. But Carlo Gasparri 's remarkable article is extremely rich in comparisons that lay the groundwork for a discussion of the precious vases of antiquity and the cultural element they have in common, a cultural element that was not confined to the West (since the vases were imitated in China) and so gave rise to an interplay of influences that affected Europe.

*Prospettiva, pp. 11-13, figs 26-28.

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