Friday, July 05, 2019

A Medieval Eucharistic Knife

Earlier this year, we wrote about the 800th anniversary of the founding of the basilica of St Andrew in the northern Italian city of Vercelli. The cardinal who founded it and laid the cornerstone, Guala Bicchieri (ca. 1150-1227), was a native of that city, and one of the most important churchmen of his era; among many other noteworthy episodes, as papal legate to England, he was one of the signatories of the Magna Carta. As part of the celebration of the anniversary, the cathedral of Hereford loaned one of the original copies of the Magna Carta to a museum in Vercelli. (All photos by Nicola de’ Grandi.)

An interesting item once owned by the cardinal was also displayed in the same show, a knife used to prepare bread for the celebration of the Mass. In Card. Bichieri’s lifetime, the memory of the murder of St Thomas Becket was still very much alive, and there was a legend that the metal used to make this blade came from the very sword that killed him.
The decorations on the ivory handle represent the months of the year, with the months dedicated to the production of wheat, and hence bread, in the central band: October (sowing), June (weeding), August (harvesting) and September (winnowing.)
The show also included this wooden chest, covered in medallions of gilded and chased copper, with champlevé enamel, produced in Limoges ca. 1220. It was discovered in a wall of the church’s sanctuary in 1822, with the remains of Card. Bicchieri inside; the metalwork was all quite well preserved, but the poplar wood seen here is all modern replacement.
The Museo Leone in Vercelli houses in its permanent collection another, smaller chest that also belonged to Cardinal Bicchieri, one of a total of six which he left to the basilica of St Andrew on his death, of the same period and manufacture.
In 1459, the Canons Regular installed in the basilica by Cardinal Bicchieri transferred to the abbey of St Stephen in Biella, 26 miles to the northeast of Vercelli. At that point, they removed 23 of the medallions from the six wooden chests, and brought them to Biella to decorate their chour stalls; several of these are now kept in Civic Museum of Turin, and were loaned for this show.
A 19th-century portrait of the Cardinal

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