Shapes have changed, not the purpose

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | June 15, 2017

The next time you attend Mass, take a look at the chalice that is used at the consecration. What makes it different from any other cup at the Mass?

The word “chalice” comes to us from St. Jerome in the fourth century. He translated the Gospels from their Greek original language into Latin. When he did, he took the Greek word “pot?rion” — which means “a cup or a drinking vessel” and translated it as “calix” for referring to the cup Jesus blessed at the Last Supper. Scripture scholars agree that Jerome knew that the Gospel word was “cup” and not “chalice,” but that he also wanted to emphasize the special nature of the vessel used to hold the consecrated wine.

For much this same reason, the chalice at Mass looks different — we want to emphasize that it’s different from any other cup. According to the current “General Instruction of the Roman Missal,” the chalice used at Mass must be made of precious materials that “suited for sacred use and do not easily break or deteriorate” (n. 329). Most often this means that the chalice is made of gold, or at least of a precious metal with a gilded interior.

No one is certain what early chalices looked like. There is some evidence that they may have been made of glass (which was a precious material at the time), and St. Augustine (d. 384) did mention gold and silver chalices in use. However the “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that, based on early mosaics and Christian art, it seems that the most commonly used vessel for the consecrated wine was “of an almost stemless, vase-shaped type with two handles,” similar to a loving-cup style of some of today’s modern trophies, only with a squat bowl shape.

This style seemed to persist into the 10th century. Today, one of the oldest examples of this style is the Chalice of Ardagh in the National Museum of Ireland. This Irish chalice is silver decorated with gold, bronze, brass and enamel and dates to about the eighth or ninth centuries.

The modern style of chalice — with its bell-shaped bowl, a knobbed stem and a heavy base —developed later and became the more dominant by the 11th century in Europe. An early example of it is seen in the eighth-century Tassilo Chalice of Austria, kept at the Kremsmünster Abbey. The bowl shape remained, but the handles disappeared.

With the double handles gone, it became necessary to adapt the chalice so that it could be held firmly. So the stem of chalices began to evolve to include a nodule — called a “knop.” The knop served both for gripping and to stabilize the vessel’s weight. The stem itself also grew taller over time.

The addition of a heavy foot to chalices also added stability. Some chalices today have a hexagonal — or even an eight-sided — foot. This feature is believed to have developed at a time when the chalice was tipped on its side to drain the wine to the side of the cup for easier cleansing. The flat edges on the chalice’s base prevented it rolling and spilling any remaining wine.

Other modern chalices have a smooth, circular foot, since chalices are no longer tipped on their sides. Some have a second, smaller nodule just above the base. This is called a “collar.”

Because of its size, the enlarged foot of the chalice soon became a place for decorations, and many images were etched or enameled on them. Usually these were images of Christ or the Apostles or portrayed scenes from the Gospel stories. The underside of the foot also became a place to engrave dedications or the name of the person or persons who had donated the chalice. This is the case with the above mentioned Tassilo Chalice, which was donated by Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria and his wife. The chalice is still used today on the anniversary of the Duke’s death in 777.

The outside of the bowl of a modern chalice is divided into two parts. Only, the lower “cup” area is used for ornamentation. The upper rim itself is left plain, so as not to cause any drips or spillage when drinking from the chalice.

Modern-day chalices also have a larger bowl than previous chalices because more than one person might drink from it at a Mass. (This is not always the case; sometimes only the celebrant drinks from the chalice.) In chalices prior to the liturgical changes following the Second Vatican Council, the bowl of the chalice was kept quite small, since only the celebrant of the Mass would drink from it. The shape of the bell of chalices varies, but the most common shapes are the bell, cylinder or even tulip.

The tulip shape might serve to remind us of the original Greek word that St. Jerome knew — kylix This word is sometimes confused with a similar, ancient Greek word: calix (not the same as the Latin word), which means “a seed pod.” Perhaps, as we look upon the sacrament on the altar, with both the consecrated host and wine, we can be reminded of the Lord’s words about the grain of wheat that “falls and dies, … (and) produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24).


Sources: “Catholic Encyclopedia”; “General Instruction of the Roman Missal”;;;;;;;; and


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