Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Mementos of Faith



QUESTION: I was browsing at a local flea market this past weekend and came upon a strange object. It seems to be some sort of wand. It has a turned wooden handle at the end of which is a round metal ball with tiny holes in it. The dealer said she picked it up at a church sale, so I bought it out of curiosity. Can you please tell me what this is and how it might have been used?

ANSWER: You are now the proud owner of an aspergillum or holy water wand, used by priests in Catholic and Anglican churches.

The priest uses an aspergillum to sprinkle holy water. It comes in two common forms—a brush that the priest dips in an aspersorium or bucket of holy water and shakes, and a silver ball with tiny holes attached to a stick.

Priests use an aspergillum for the Rite of Baptism and during the Easter Season. In addition, priests use an aspergillum to bless the candles during candlemas services and the palms during Palm Sunday Mass. At a requiem, if a coffin is present, the priest will sprinkle holy water on it. The aspergillum can also be used when blessing other things like houses, pets, crops, and such. The name derives from the Latin verb aspergere “to sprinkle.”

Ecclesiastical collectors search antique shops, flea markets and church rummage sales in the hopes of finding objects and furniture used in mostly Christian religious practices. Examples of monastic art, the delicate needlework of cloistered nuns, painted icons, carved candleholders, prayer beads and baptismal fonts originally intended for Christian houses of prayer often command astronomic prices from knowledgeable antique dealers. Cups, bowls, dishes, altar linens and the ceremonial vestments provided the finest examples of craftsmanship and art work.





But, what became of the thousands of beautifully wrought religious utensils, garments and symbols made obsolete by the sweeping changes in Catholic Church policies and the closures of Catholic churches beginning in the 1960s?

Back then, no one wanted the larger-than-life statues, banners appliqued with obscure religious symbols, heavy marble holy water fonts, old-fashioned altar pieces and paintings that graphically depicted the tortured deaths of religious martyrs? Since these weren’t quick moving commodities or even investment items for antique dealers, church basements, rectory attics, and parochial school storage areas began to bulge with hand-turned altar railings, huge sanctuary lamps, ornate metal reliquaries and the delicately carved doors of closet-sized confessionals.

Gradually, these outmoded, unwanted and useless items trickled away. Well-intentioned volunteer groups hauled much of this detritus back into the light of day and offered it at fund-raising events such as church rummage sales. When it became necessary to raze a church, the church hierarchy offered old stained glass windows and exquisite, glass door inserts to local antique dealers on a "make-an-offer" basis. Salvage companies carted off the carved lions, fancy wooden fretwork and the masonry arches from above church doors.

Starting in the late 1980s, interior decorators began to incorporate religious artifacts into the interiors of up-scale homes. This trend propelled discarded church surplus into the realm of high style. Pieces now command huge prices at architectural warehouses. Consider the wild popularity of angel items, for example.

Candleholders for weddings and christenings, long pine pews, processional crosses mounted on oak poles and even altars are showing up at large flea markets. Since most churches use flowers during the year for religious services, collectors can find all types of large altar containers and floor vases. Bibles, candleholders, altar linens and crosses of every size and material, as well as religious utensils, such as cut crystal cruets, used by altar servers to present the water and unconsecrated wine to the priest and easily identified by the incised crosses, wheat sheaves and grape cluster motif.

People buy religious items for three reasons. First, they might purchase a chalice because of its artistic beauty. Second, they want it because it evokes an emotional response from their childhood, a time when the family attended Sunday services. And third, some people collect Christian religious items with much the same interest that African cultural memorabilia collectors buy tribal masks. They don’t use the masks, but enjoy displaying them, researching them, and using them as unique decorations.

And don’t think religious objects appear for sale only in the U.S. Flea market vendors, especially in Mexico City, often have beautiful old vestments on display, as well as santos, carved wooden figures of saints. A small but unique item is the nicho, a three dimensional, recessed shadow box, dating back to the Spanish colonial period. Traditionally, people used nichos as portable shrines for patron saints or pictures of loved ones. The faithful often carry these with them when going door to door in their village asking for donations for the church.

Another item, often found hanging on the wall of a side chapel in a Mexican church, is the retablo. These paintings on tin depict a loved one who is sick or dying. Hanging their image in the church is a way of asking people to pray for them. Other retablos are beautifully handpainted testimonies of faith of the people of a particular Mexican village.

Religious objects mean different things to different people. Many mundane religious items retain value because many ceremonial practices have been eliminated from worship and therefore the elaborate trappings and religious utensils won’t be produced in the future.

tin plate frames, or nichos. These 3-d, recessed shadow boxes date back to the Spanish colonial period. Traditionally nichos were used as portable shrines for patron saints or pictures of loved ones. Frescos on tin depicting the 12 apostles, most likely from an altarpiece.

For more on collecting religious objects, read my previous blog on collecting old Bibles, "The Most Printed Book of All Time."

To read more articles on antiques, please visit my Web site.  And to stay up to the minute on antiques and collectibles, please join the other 17,000 readers by following my free online magazine, #TheAntiquesAlmanac.

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