Saturday, August 26, 2017

NLM Quiz no. 20: What is This Object’s Liturgical Function?

The liturgical function of this piece of furniture can be perfectly described with exactly two words; if only one of those words is given, that is insufficient for the answer to be deemed correct. Please leave your answer in the combox, but do also feel free to add any details or explanations you think pertinent. As always, to keep it more interesting, please leave your answer before reading the other comments. We are always pleased to hear humorous answers as well.

The Answer: The two words that sum up the function of this piece of furniture are “portable chapel.” “Portable altar” is only partially correct. Here is a photo of a photo of the chapel when it is opened, which is displayed next to the original in the Casa Rocca Piccola in Valletta, Malta. (Sorry for the glare, this was the best angle I was able to find.)
It is in point of fact a fully functional chapel, and was used not only for the celebration of Mass, but also for family devotions, and even contains everything necessary for a baptism. It is also portable, by the standards of a wealthy family in the 18th-century that employs a good many servants; the upper and lower parts can be separated from each other for transport. Noble families would often bring amazing amounts of stuff with them when they decamped to their country house for several months in the summertime, which of course can be particularly hot in Malta. (Valletta is closer to the equator than either Tunis or Algiers.) Here is a fuller view of the room where it is currently kept.
The Chinese style was very much in vogue in Italy in the 18th-century; the doors of the upper part show Christian missionaries in the Far East, with St Francis Xavier baptizing on the left.
The full correct answer was given by Longinus, who also knew the location, and so has clearly visited the place, and by Pax Tecum, with the addition of some interesting information about use of similar objects in the Netherlands.
The award for Best Wildly Incorrect Answer is given to those who thought it had anything to do with hiding priests in a hole blocked by such a piece of furniture. One would hardly hide a priest behind a piece of furniture with pictures of priests in cassock on it; also, chinoiserie was not a thing in the days of the priest-holes. The Best Humorous Answer is awarded to Joe Lody for “How Narnians come to earth. ... it’s locked.” “Peter, High King of Narnia, lock the door!”
More from Malta and the Casa Rocca Piccola later this week.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: