Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Monstrances of Unusual Size

A number of recent discussions on this site and elsewhere has inspired me to look into various alternative past forms of monstrance different from that which has become part of received artistic tradition. We have already discussed Orvieto's unique combination reliquary-monstrance for the Holy Corporal. Spain is particularly rich in these forms, which are often called custodia, and typically play a role in grand liturgical processions. (The term custodia is sometimes also more conventionally applied to the standing pyx used to contain the Host and lunula when not in use.)

While Marian statue-custodias of some sort were apparently not unknown in the Middle Ages, if since suppressed, presently they usually take the form of a conventional monstrance of great size, or a a canopy into which a smaller monstrance can be placed.

Toledo's Custodia del Arfe, a 1524 work by the German-born Enrique del Arfe, is an elaborate Gothic framework atop a processional sedile used to contain a smaller inner monstrance of a more conventional size that itself dates back to the time of Isabella of Castille. It stands at ten feet and weighs in at 500 pounds. It is still used during Corpus Christi processions, lifted high on the shoulders of a team of bearers, rather than being carried by a single priest in the conventional manner, as can be seen in the YouTube clip below.

Seville possesses another monstrance of even greater size, created by the similarly-named sixteenth-century Juan del Arfe, presumably a relative, though I have not found any sources that comment on the coincidence. It too is also still is in use, from the photograph here taken on a recent Holy Thursday; it is also brought out on Corpus Christi.

Portugal possesses the famous Belém Monstrance, attributed to the playright-goldsmith Gil Vicente, which is sometimes called a Custodia, though its exact size and method of operation is somewhat unclear to me.

In the United States, custodias are largely unknown, but a comparable, though non-processional, form can be found in the large fixed monstrance crowning the high altar at the church of Saint Jean-Baptiste in New York. While perhaps it might have (rightly) given the rubricians of the twentieth-century Liturgical Movement conniption fits, in view of the Eucharistic focus of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament that staffs the order, it has become a distinctive symbol of the parish. While fixed, it nonetheless repeats the basic monstrance form of a custodia, and also, like the Toledo custodia houses a smaller monstrance that can be removed and used for Benediction. Presently when not in use the luna simply remains empty, a practice I find somewhat strange, but I am told originally it was designed to rotate sideways when the Host was removed and adoration ended. More can be found here on this subject.

If anyone, particularly our Spanish readers, can think of other examples of this phenomenon--either historic or still in use, I'd be very interested.

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