Monstrance

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A Monstrance, or Ostensorium, is a vessel designed to hold and carry a holy object.  Both terms were originally applied to all kinds of vessels in which the Blessed Sacrament or a relic could be stored, carried and above all seen by worshippers.  The tradition of carrying holy relics around and allowing the faithful to venerate them goes back to the very early days of Christianity.  The vessels themselves quickly took on elaborate designs intended to convey the importance and the holiness of the object they held.  Nowadays, the term Monstrance is mostly limited to a specific design of vessel used to hold the Blessed Sacrament.

 

A sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace; the divine energy or presence of God among us in our material world.  The outward sign itself will be worldly and mundane, representing the earthly world in which we live.  Probably the best known, and certainly the most important sacrament of the Church, is the holy Eucharist - the very body and blood of Christ.  The mundane or remote matter of Christ’s body is formed of bread whilst that of his blood is of wine.  In consuming the bread, we are reinforcing our connection to the mystical body of Christ.  Not the earthly body of Jesus of Nazareth, but the divine oneness of the Godhead into which we seek to enter.  In consuming the wine, we are drawn into the spiritual life or blood of Christ which was shed for us as a gift.

 

A Monstrance is designed to hold a consecrated wafer of bread that is the outward sign of the Blessed Sacrament – the real presence of Christ amongst us.

 

It is likely that the custom of carrying the Blessed Sacrament amongst worshippers dates back to around the time of the first millennium.  Initially, it appears to have begun with the decorating of elaborate shrines in which to place the sacrament during holy days, from which a custom began of building small portable shrines that could be physically carried and prosessed around the Church and community.  It seems that the Monstrance design we are familiar with today is the result of a gradual refining of this portable shrine.  By the 15th century, Monstrances had become a common feature in all large Churches and were particularly associated with Easter and the feast of Corpus Christi. 

 

 

 

Early vessels for carrying the Blessed Sacrament may have been quite simple, perhaps just a cup to hold the communion wafers with crystal sides and a cover on top.  This vessel could have been employed both to give out the communion and in processions.  As the custom of processing the visible sacrament became more common, so the need for a vessel designed specifically for the purpose grew.  Early mediaeval Monstrances were mainly an upright cylindrical vessel of crystal into which a large Eucharistic wafer was placed and held in place up-right.  The central vessel would have various decorative features around it, including niches and statues.  The Blessed Sacrament would have been visible through the Crystal, although the whole of the interior would have been visible and not just the sacramental wafer. 

 

 

 

 

 

As time went on, this design was adapted to allow the transparent part of the vessel to be just large enough to show the Blessed Sacrament and focus the eye on it.  The central cylinder was surrounded with decoration to make the whole object look like a sun, with sun rays emanating from it.  This has become the standard design of a Monstrance ever since, although other designs were used - such as a statue of Christ with the Sacrament held in place of his heart.

 

The sun design is intended to signify the resurrection of Christ, his rising in glory following his earthly death.  It is a fitting symbolism for the decoration of a vessel containing the Blessed Sacrament, into which we are drawn into this new life.  However, it is hard not to make another association and one which has very deep meaning.

 

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The first thing to bear in mind when we consider our folk mythology regarding the sun is to remember that in Germanic culture and language, unlike Latin, the sun is female not male.  In German it is Die Sonne and in Old English Seo Sunne.  In the mythology, she rises in the east, turning frost giants into stone, then hurtles through the sky pulled by the two horses, Arvak and Alsvid who give off the sunlight.  She is chased by the wolf Skoll (sometimes depicted as his father Fenrir). 

 

 

 

Sunne gives us our holy day, Sunday, which in England is considered to be the first day of the week.  Sunne is a Goddess of renewal, light and energy.  As she rides across the sky, she is eventually caught by Skoll signifying the loss of daylight and the onset of night until she escapes the wolf and rises again the following morning.  

 

We should therefore see the sun itself as symbolic of the feminine nature of God signifying, day over night, light over darkness and life over death.  Perhaps it is symbolic of the nurturing role of motherhood.  However, two of our folk Gods are also strongly associated with the sun as an outward and visible symbol of the birth, death rebirth cycle.  These are Ingeld (Ing Frey) and Baldur.  However, they should not be seen as sun Gods as such because of the clear feminine nature of the word sun.  A different analysis is needed than would be the case with say Greek or Latin mythologies where sun is seen as male.

 

Baldur and Ing Frey should rather be seen as aspects of the male nature of God that utilise (or more literally fertilise) the nurturing power of the feminine.  Again, as with so many aspects of our folk religion, we see the joining of the male and female principles to produce the new life – the natural cycle of life that lies at the heart of our mythology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ingeld is one of the best known and loved Gods of the early Anglo Saxon English.  He is probably the most strongly connected God to the birth, death rebirth cycle and is clearly associated in our folk Christianity with Christ as the new life.  There are several myths surrounding Ingeld and his Scandinavian equivalent Freyr.  However, these all have in common the theme of life, rebirth, peace, prosperity and fertility.  He is associated with the sun, summer and good weather conducive to the growing of crops and rearing of animals.  Another name for him is Skirr, which means shining.  He is not a sun God as such, but rather the divine force that wields her energy to create life on earth.  It is said that he was born on the winter solstice – or beginning of Yuletide – the point at which the days begin to grow longer and the sun to grow stronger.   

 

 

 

Baldur, is sometimes considered to be a later aspect of Frey.  There is little if any evidence that the Anglo Saxon English knew him in the early days, though he certainly became known following the Danish incursions towards the end of the Anglo Saxon era.  He certainly has much in common with Ing Frey, being associated with the sun and with summer.  His name means ‘bright’ and he is often called Baldur the bright or Baldur the beautiful.  However, unlike Ing Frey, he is depicted mythologically as the son of Odin and Frigga. He is accredited with teaching humans the wisdom of herb craft.  His mother, Frigga made all living things promise they would not harm him, but forgot the mistletoe as it was so young she did not think it could do any harm.  Because Baldur was seen as invincible, the Gods liked to play a game at which they hurled dangerous objects at him knowing that he would come to no harm.  However, Loki tricked Baldur’s brother, the blind God of winter Hodur, into shooting a dart of mistletoe at Baldur which killed him.  Odin travelled into the underworld to plead with the Goddess Hel for the return of his son.  Infact Hel agreed to this on condition that every living creature should mourn Baldur.  And all creatures did mourn him, except for Loki who had disguised himself as the giantess Thokk.  And so Baldur remains in the land of Hel, until the time of the Ragnarok, when he will be reborn in glory to take the place of his father, Odin.  As punishment, Loki was bound in shackles where he remains until the Ragnarok and Hodur was put to death to be reborn with his brother at the Ragnarok.

 

The death of Baldur at the hands of Hodur represent s a temporary victory of death over life, the coming to an end of the present order of things.  It is important to note that this is done at the instigation of Loki.  Although, at one level of consideration we can see Loki as an evil force who brings forth the death of the light, so we can also see him as a necessary agent who sets in motion the chain of events that leads to the renewal of Ragnarok.

 

The symbolism of this northern sun myth is full of deep and hidden meanings.  Its similarities to the Christian resurrection story are too obvious to ignore, but its roots go back to the very beginnings of Indo European sun religion.  Balder and Ingeld, then, both represent the Christ principle – the Logos.  In these myths, we gain more understanding about the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, his death and rebirth.  This death, which is a form of Ragnarok, is necessary to bring about the renewal and eternal life he promises.   

 

 

 

 

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