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Treatment of the religious use of candlesticks

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Candlesticks. — Of the earliest form of candle-sticks used in Christian churches we know but little. Such records as we possess of the magnificent presents made by Constantine to the basilica of the Lateran and to St. Peter’s seem from the descriptions to refer principally to the stands and the hanging chandeliers destined for lamps. We hear also of two sets of seven bronze candelabra, each ten feet high, placed before the altars, but we cannot assume that these candelabra aurichalca were necessarily used for wax tapers (Duchesne, Liber Pontifica lis, I, 173-176). Some of these great fari must have been magnificent pieces of metal-work, being made of gold and silver with fifty, eighty, or one hundred and twenty “dolphins”, i.e. little branches wrought in this form and supporting each of them one or more lamps. This extraordinary profusion of lights, indirectly corroborated by Prudentius (Migne, P.L. LIX, 820, 829) and St. Paulinus of Nola (Migne, P.L. LXI, 467 and 535), was such that Rohault de Fleury (La Messe, VI, 5) estimates at 8730 the number of lights which Constantine destined for the Lateran basilica. This practice of providing immense hanging- coronce to be lighted on the great festivals seems to have lasted throughout the Middle Ages and to have extended to every part of Christendom, both East and West. (Cf. e.g. Venantius Fortunatus, Migne, LXXXVIII, 127.) We, in these days of brilliant artificial light, cannot easily realize what unwonted splendor such displays imparted to worship in a comparatively rude and barbarous age. To these magnificent chandeliers various names are given in the Liber Pontificalis, e.g. cantharus, corona, stantareum, pharus, cicindele, etc. Such works of art were often presented by emperors or royal personages to the basilicas of Rome, and though no specimens of any great size survive from this early period, various smaller objects have been found, one a bronze chandelier representing a basilica and providing accommodation for a dozen lights (Leclereq, Manuel d’archeologie, II, 561), which give a sufficient idea of their construction.

Besides these, simple candlesticks (cereostata) were also undoubtedly in use from a very early date. The reference in the Apocalypse to the seven candlesticks of the Churches of Asia (i, 12 sq.) was probably derived from some feature already familiar in Christian worship. Of the lights carried before certain Roman officials, and of the acolyte’s candlestick and candle referred to in the so-called Fourth Council of Carthage, mention is made in the article Candles (q.v.). The well-known medal of Gaudentianus of the fifth or sixth century seemingly shows candles burning upon a ciborium over an altar. Less open to dispute are the candlesticks seen in various mosaics and carved sarcophagi of the same period. The long shafts are evidently made of alternating spindles and knobs, and they are supported on a three-clawed base of simple form. There was a pricket at the top upon which the candle was stuck, and so St. Paulinus speaks of the candlesticks “which carry painted candles on their protruding spikes” (Depictors exstante gerunt quae cuepide ceras). Of the Merovingian and Carolingian candelabra we have no trustworthy surviving examples, but we read of the exquisite workmanship lavished upon such objects in the time of Benedict of Aniane (750-821), who presented a set of seven to the church over which he ruled. A remarkable candlestick of bronze is still preserved at Kremsmunster, and is believed by some to be coeval with the chalice of Tassilo, c. 810, belonging to the same treasury; but other authorities assign the candlestick to a date at least two centuries later. The design shows a good deal of boldness and grace, but the execution of the metal work is not of a very high order. Of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries sundry candle-sticks are preserved to us of a Byzantine type, squat and grotesque in form, which, if destined for ecclesiastical purposes at all, seem rather to have been intended to stand upon the surface of the altar than to be carried by acolytes or placed upon the ground. There are also other reasons, derived in part from the miniatures of manuscripts, which suggest that the use of lighted candles upon the altar itself is to be traced to this period. Much more remarkable, however, are the remains of some magnificent metal-work on a more vast scale. The great candelabrum of Reims was preserved until the French Revolution. It was constructed by instruction of the treasurer Wido between 1076 and 1097, and was no doubt meant to stand before the high altar in imitation of the great seven-branch candlestick of the temple of Jerusalem. Its height was over eighteen feet and its width fifteen. At present we have to judge of its workmanship from a small portion of the pedestal, which has alone escaped destruction and is now preserved in the public library of Reims.

Not less wonderful and happily still entire is the great candelabrum of Milan commonly known as “the Virgin’s Tree”. This chef-d’oeuvre of twelfth-century art is also a seven-branch candlestick, and over eighteen feet in height. If the general effect, owing to the nature of the subject, is rather gaunt and straggling, the beauty of detail in the sculptured base and the bosses which adorn the stem can hardly be exceeded. With such great standing candelabra as those of Reims and Milan, neither of which could be described as precisely liturgical in purpose, we may associate certain large chandeliers still preserved from the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Those of Reims and Toul perished in the French Revolution. But at Hildesheim we have a circular corona of gilt copper suspended from the roof, and dating from about 1050, twenty feet in circumference and bearing seventy-two candles. That at Aix-la-Chapelle, the gift of Frederick Barbarossa, whose name is inscribed upon it, is still larger and still more remarkable for the artistic beauty of its details, especially the medallions depicting scenes in the life of Christ, engraved upon copper and painted. More strictly destined for the service of the altar are a few surviving specimens of twelfth-century candlesticks, the most famous of which (here reproduced) is now in the South Kensington Museum, London, and, as the following inscription shows, was originally made for Gloucester Abbey in the time of Abbot Peter (1104-12):

Abbatis Petri gregis et devotio mitis

Me dedit Ecclesie Sci Petri Gloecestre.

The grace and elaboration of the interlacing grotesques are very characteristic of the period. Nearly a century older, but less artistic, are the two candle-sticks of Bernard now at Hildesheim; while as a specimen of later medieval work it will be sufficient to mention two very beautiful candlesticks, about five feet in height, preserved at present in the Cathedral of Ghent, but believed to have belonged before the Reformation to St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

The practice of retaining six great candlesticks permanently upon the high altar seems only to date from the sixteenth century. At a somewhat earlier period we occasionally read of five, seven, or nine, according to the grade of the feast. However, since the publication of the “Caeremoniale Episcoporum” in 1600, the presence of three such candlesticks on either side of the central crucifix is a matter of rubrical law. The “Caeremoniale” further directs that they should correspond to the crucifix in pattern and should be of graduated heights, the tallest next to the crucifix. This last direction, however, may be considered to have fallen into abeyance. (See Altar Candles. under Altar Candlesticks.)


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