Monday, July 23, 2007

Noble Metals for Sacred Vessels

THE USE OF SPECIAL sacred vessels in the Mass goes all the way back to the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper and beyond that in Jewish Law and Temple ritual. That we ought to have vessels set aside for sacred use, and that they ought to be made of nonporous, worthy, and durable materials, derives from ritual purity laws, theology, and practical considerations.

Ritual purity laws, which kept God's people separate and distinct from the Gentiles, were specifically abrogated by Christ, but these ancient laws also had the practical effect of hygiene, as well as demonstrating the sacral quality of ritual.

Theologically, we ought to consecrate vessels for the Mass — set them aside for sacred use only — to specifically give honor to the Lord, and to avoid confusion, and these should be well-made for their very specific use.

The General Instructions of the Roman Missal, third typical edition, 2002, chapter VI, tells us about the materials to be used for sacred vessels:
328. Sacred vessels are to be made from precious metal. If they are made from metal that rusts or from a metal less precious than gold, then ordinarily they should be gilded on the inside.

329. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, sacred vessels may also be made from other solid materials that, according to the common estimation in each region, are precious, for example, ebony or other hard woods, provided that such materials are suited to sacred use and do not easily break or deteriorate. This applies to all vessels which hold the hosts, such as the paten, the ciborium, the pyx, the monstrance, and other things of this kind.

330. As regards chalices and other vessels that are intended to serve as receptacles for the Blood of the Lord, they are to have bowls of nonabsorbent material. The base, on the other hand, may be made of other solid and worthy materials.

331. For the consecration of hosts, a large paten may appropriately be used; on it is placed the bread for the priest and the deacon as well as for the other ministers and for the faithful.

332. As to the form of the sacred vessels, the artist may fashion them in a manner that is more in keeping with the customs of each region, provided each vessel is suited to the intended liturgical use and is clearly distinguishable from those intended for everyday use.
Note that the United States has an exception to the general rule, which is distressingly familiar in contemporary Catholic practice. However, to avoid excessive abuse, the exceptional rule for the US reiterates that the material used should be precious, durable, distinctive, and nonabsorbent. For whatever reason, some Catholics are repelled by the notion of gold sacred vessels, and instead are attracted to plain wood or pottery, or even common household dishes and cups.

An artistic illustration of this modern bias against precious sacred vessels can be seen in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Here, the heroes and villains race to find the Holy Grail, the wine cup used by Christ in the institution of the Eucharist and also used to catch drops of His holy blood from His Cross. At the film's climax, the characters must choose among a series of cups, only one of which is the true Grail, and the only one that will give life. The villain wrongly chooses a bejeweled golden chalice, and dies, while the hero correctly choses a "simple carpenter's cup" and lives. (However, this plain wooden cup has a gilded interior, making the cup nonporous and hence suitable for sacred use, which I think was a fine detail.) But what is believed to be the actual Holy Grail is found in Cathedral of Valencia, Spain, and is neither common or lowly, nor is it made of gold. Rather, it is made of dark agate; a hard, durable, precious, non-porous, and decorative form of quartz, a material well-suited for making sacred vessels.

Although gold has been the material of choice for sacred vessels both in the Church and at the Jewish Temple, by no means is it the only acceptable material, as the reputed true Grail shows us, as well as many acceptable examples of sacred vessels in history.

Other recent norms regarding sacred vessels are found in Inaestimabile Donum (1980):
16. Particular respect and care are due to the sacred vessels, both the chalice and paten for the celebration of the Eucharist, and the ciboria for the Communion of the faithful. The form of the vessels must be appropriate for the liturgical use for which they are meant. The material must be noble, durable, and in every case adapted to sacred use. In this sphere, judgment belongs to the episcopal conference of the individual regions.

Use is not to be made of simple baskets or other recipients meant for ordinary use outside the sacred celebrations, nor are the sacred vessels to be of poor quality or lacking any artistic style.
and in Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), which quotes the two previous excerpts:

[117.] Sacred vessels for containing the Body and Blood of the Lord must be made in strict conformity with the norms of tradition and of the liturgical books. The Bishops’ Conferences have the faculty to decide whether it is appropriate, once their decisions have been given the recognitio by the Apostolic See, for sacred vessels to be made of other solid materials as well. It is strictly required, however, that such materials be truly noble in the common estimation within a given region,[206]so that honour will be given to the Lord by their use, and all risk of diminishing the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species in the eyes of the faithful will be avoided. Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily. This norm is to be applied even as regards metals and other materials that easily rust or deteriorate.
Some people, it seems, just don't get it, and have to be reminded of the requirements in ever more specific detail. This shows a lack of common understanding.

Traditionally and logically, precious metals typically ought to be used to make sacred vessels for the Mass. A great practical advantage of metals is that they can be melted and formed to arbitrary shapes, unlike wood or stone which start as preexisting lumps, which may or may not have interior defects.

The metal used ought to be noble and precious, which generally can be thought of as being beautiful, uncommon, and highly stable, and not just merely expensive. Monetary sacrifice for the greater honor and glory of God is admirable, while the desire to merely own valuable items is not.

In chemistry, the noble elements are those which do not easily react with others, and these are typically are found in nature in their native state, and not in chemical compounds. Gold, platinum, silver, and copper are mined from the earth in their elemental form, and have been used by man since the remotest of antiquity. Gold is the gold standard of precious metals since it is easily worked and does not tarnish. Silver tarnishes, but not too much, and it polishes quite nicely, while copper can tarnish so much as to be unusable, so is probably not too good for sacred use.

Many metals are mined as chemical compounds which must be transformed back into metal, usually via heat. Very many metals, like tin, iron, lead, and zinc, have been known from antiquity because they are easy to extract: but if they are easy to get out of a chemical compound, then they also easily revert back to a chemical compound. This means that they easily corrode or react with things such as wine, making them unsuitable for sacred vessels. Iron, exposed to moisture, quickly turns into rust.

Other metals are so difficult to extract from their ores that they haven't been discovered until recently. But this is good: if it is hard to extract them, then they also strongly resist reverting back into an ore, and so may be useful to our purpose. An example of this is titanium, which is a strong, beautiful, and lightweight metal. Another is aluminum, which is considerably less attractive and does not polish well, although it is quite easy to work.

Lithium, sodium, and potassium metals explode on contact with water. Not good materials for making sacred vessels!

God reveals himself in two books: sacred scripture and in nature, and the order and harmony found in nature reveals a noble hierarchy analogous to the heavenly hierarchy. One of the joys in learning chemistry is the great order and harmony among the elements, which is illustrated by the Periodic Table of Elements. The usefulness of this arrangement is profound: similar elements are found together in the table; for example, silver and platinum are both adjacent to gold in the table, and these three elements make up our most common precious metals. Nickel, copper, and zinc, all considered good for making durable, inexpensive coins, are also adjacent to each other on the table.

So by looking at the table of elements, we should be able to discover other worthy metals that may be suitable for making sacred vessels. Adjacent to gold, silver, and platinum are ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, and iridium: we should not be surprised that these are all precious metals that can be used in making fine vessels, either directly or as part of an alloy.

Chemistry also distinguishes a hierarchy of nobility in metals: when dissimilar metals are placed together in an electrically conducting liquid, such as salt water, an electric battery is created, and one metal will electrically corrode at the expense of another. The corroded metal is called the active, or sacrificial metal, while the other is the noble metal. This relative measure of corrosiveness can be used as a guide to selecting worthy materials for use in sacred vessels. Here is a rough hierarchy, listed from most to least noble:
  • Palladium
  • Platinum
  • Gold
  • Zirconium
  • Silver
  • Titanium
  • High-grade stainless steel
  • Nickel-copper alloys
  • Nickel
  • Bronze
  • Copper
  • Tin
  • Brass
  • Chromium
  • Lead
  • Iron
  • Steel
  • Cadmium
  • Aluminum
  • Uranium
  • Beryllium
  • Zinc
  • Magnesium
As we would expect, our old friends platinum, gold, and silver are near the top of this list and are the first choices in worthy materials used for sacred vessels. Certainly, palladium, which is similar to platinum, is easy to work, and is used in jewelry-making ought to be investigated, along with other similar metals.

Titanium has been most famously used in military aircraft, and is difficult to work, but it is a light, beautiful, and strong metal that ought to be investigated, especially if new techniques of forming it are perfected. For the time being, titanium can be used in architecture for extremely durable and attractive roofing and cladding.

Zirconium (its name comes from Arabic, meaning gold-like) is used mainly in nuclear reactors, but may also be suitable for liturgical use. It is both strong and easy to work.

It's hard to determine if stainless steel is worthy or not. Although it is a semi-precious metal, corrosion resistant, can be worked, and is moderately attractive, it still has the crude name "steel". Perhaps some alloys might be useful.

Copper and its alloys are widely used in the arts, because of their beauty and workability, but I would consider them to be at the bottom of acceptability in use in liturgical vessels, and they would need to be gilded. They are very good, even if common metals. Nickel-copper alloys might be the most suitable in the group.

By all means, avoid the reactive metals at the bottom of the list. They are either healthy nutrient minerals or deadly poisons, but their corrosiveness means that they aren't suited for sacred use.


  1. I love this post! I'm a great fan of the periodic table. You really have the gist of it here, one significant way the metals and other elements can be viewed. I've been disappointed by literary approaches to the periodic table in the past several decades. Too much angst projected onto the natural and material law, which is only good by nature.

    By the way I enjoyed the link to the article and photo about the grail. I can't believe how wrong those who say "that there were such rich and fine vessels used at the Last Supper was nonsensical." That's so wrong. The agate grail was a gift from a Christian supporter. Many supporters were quite wealthy and gave whatever Jesus and the Apostles would accept. This is especially true when Jesus cured members of properous families. In Mid East culture to give a gift (a cure) without accepting in return would have been very hurtful. So in some circumstances Jesus would accept support for the mission, and the life of the Apostles was hard enough that there was no reason to deprive themselves even in accepting a fine cup for the Last Supper. Goodness, I do wonder where historians get their ideas. They should note that when Jesus needed to pay taxes, a fish provided the coin. And when he needed to be buried, they didn't dump him in your "average joe" grave. Those are scriptural references that should inform from the faith perspective the historians who forget that wealthy supporters of early Christianity were, Jewish or not, consistent with generosity of gift and hospitality.

  2. JJ,

    Please let us know of any precious metal traders who are willing to donate some metal to the Church for making liturgical vessels.

  3. Of course, one extremely out-of-topic comment deserves another!

  4. Mark:

    Definitely! After I get RICH in investing in SWC, the only US based palladium and platinum producer, I will donate a whole lot of palladium metal for your church project!

    I think you are smart in listing palladium as the most noble of the metals. God choose you to speak His words. All glories to the Mighty God. I am humbled that God lead me to your blog and God used me to spread the good news of SWC investment.

    SWC is rallying nicely today after some extreme plummet. Click on my name, and follow to my blog to see all the discussion.

    I keep my promises. I really do. So please keep my contact information, get back to me in 4 years. With God's will, I shall be rich by then. With God's help, I shall donate part of my fortune God gave me, for a project the praises the God. Thanks!