Revelation and Concealment:
Flipping the pyx

Annie Thwaite


Pyx, made England ca. 1600, Unknown maker, silver-gilt, Museum no. M.18-2012. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Pyx, made England ca. 1600, Unknown maker, silver-gilt, Museum no. M.18-2012. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Concealment and secrecy are fundamental to the design of this fascinating and detailed object. This silver-gilt pyx, made in England in around 1600, was used in Roman Catholic worship to contain the Sacred Host – the consecrated wafer used in the service of Mass – and could also be used to take the consecrated Host to the bedside of the sick. Seeing as this was an object that was originally purely a receptacle for the Host, there is a lack of common design elements, and no ‘template’ pyx. Aesthetic and utilitarian considerations governed pyx design, and consequently they were of numerous and diverse appearance. Examining the detailed imagery that ornaments this particular object, however, gives us some fascinating clues to its history.

Catholics believed in the ‘Real Presence’ – that the communion wafers and wine changed their physical substance at the priest’s consecration into the holy body and blood of Christ.[1] Until the Reformation, for most people, physically receiving communion by consuming the wafer and wine was an annual event, before or after High Mass on Easter Day.[2] Indeed the majority of the year the Host, inside the Pyx, was something to be seen rather than consumed – elevated by the priest after its consecration.

This pyx is thought to have been made in Elizabethan England, at a time when the established religion of the country was a form of Church of England Protestantism.  Contemporary law forbade the people of England from practicing Catholicism – including the Catholic Mass, in which the pyx was used. Those who continued to exercise popish worship, and abstained from attending Protestant church services, were labeled ‘recusants’. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these Catholic recusants held secret services in the private chapels of wealthy nobles, remaining Catholic churches, or sometimes even everyday rooms in houses, covert and unconsecrated.[3] This pyx could have been used as a receptacle to either display the Host during secret worship, or store and hide the consecrated host after the illegal mass had taken place. For example, Gregory Gunnis, a dissembled Marian priest, revealed that since 1558 he had preserved in a silver pyx two consecrated Hosts that he revered as ‘the Catholic church doth.’[4]

Front facet of pyx. Image © Annie Thwaite, 2013.

Front side of pyx. Image © Annie Thwaite, 2013.

In the centre of the front panel of this pyx, there is a small glazed roundel – a circle of glass, or possibly rock crystal. This is bordered by engraving, including a Latin inscription that reads: ‘VERBUM CARO FACTUM’, translating as ‘The Word was made Flesh’ – an excerpt from John’s Gospel in the New Testament. This is a reference to the Holy Communion; just as Jesus Christ was made flesh by the Word of God, so likewise Catholics believe in the Real Presence in transubstantiation. However, these are New Testament words. When seen engraved on the front of a pyx, these words may not have been immediately recognized as Popish, and this pyx may not have been immediately recognised as a recusant object. Indeed, Protestants had pyxes, albeit sometimes different in design and form, for the same purpose – the fundamental difference of function being that Protestants understood the process of Communion as ceremonial, rather than physical transubstantiation.[5] Furthermore, the New Testament of the Protestant religion was, and always has been, identical to the Catholic version.

Intriguingly, thus far, this object does not appear as an overtly Catholic pyx in form or decoration. This could perhaps have been a deliberate action on the part of the designer to conceal the unlawful Catholic identity of the pyx. Yes, Latin was no longer employed in Church services, having been replaced by English; and yes, it would not be wafer used in the Protestant church service, but bread, as set out from the time of the 1552 Prayer Book.[6] However, there is a relative multitude of instances in which parishes, especially in the North of England, were extremely slow and apparently reluctant to enforce such religious changes – where Latin, wafers, and several other ‘popish abuses’ were still employed and exercised even until the conclusion of Elizabeth’s reign.[7]

The imagery that fills the remainder of the silver-gilt border is of two angels flanking the glazed roundel, below a cross at the very top that attaches a metal hoop, and an object emitting a kind of draped material. There is no reference to this specific imagery in the V&A catalogue – it may be an engraving of a kind of ‘pyx-cloth’, or ‘kerchief’; a fringed cloth that could be seen hung over the pyx when hung above the altar.[8] However, perhaps this imagery also acts as a symbolic curtain – revealing the most holy, secret and illicit Eucharist only to a select and clandestine group of Catholics.

Reverse facet of pyx. Image © Annie Thwaite, 2013.

Reverse side of pyx. Image © Annie Thwaite, 2013.

The overt Catholic imagery and Latin inscription of the reverse side tell a quite different story. The outer border reads: ‘HAC EST MENSA DOMINI NOBIS DE CALO PARATA ADVERSUS OMNES QUI TRIBULANT NOS’; translating as, ‘This is the table of our Lord prepared for us from Heaven against all those who bring us tribulation.’ These were among common words and phrases explicitly referring to Catholic Mass.[9] There is a crucifixion scene, depicting Christ on the cross, flanked by the figures of the Virgin Mary and Saint John. On the left is a scene of Moses with the brazen serpent, and the sacrifice of Isaac is on the right. The words below the images read: ‘FILIUS IMMOLATUS DATUR CIBUS VIATORIBUS’, meaning ‘The son who was sacrificed has given the bread to travellers.’

The sacrifice of Isaac is a story from Genesis in the Old Testament, in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, on Mount Moriah. Abraham is about to kill his son, when the Angel of God stops him at the last minute saying, ‘now I know you fear God’.[10] Catholics see the event as foreshadowing the willingness of God the Father to sacrifice his own son.[11] Moreover, the image of the crucified Jesus, depicted on much Pre-Reformation church plate, reflects the late-medieval perception of mass as a re-enactment of the Calvary sacrifice.[12]  Protestants would have regarded such images and inscriptions – especially their advocacy of saint veneration and prayer for the ill and dead – with great antipathy. Yet still more offensive to the spiritual sensibilities of the Church of England was its association with rites that were considered unbiblical and superstitious; namely, transubstantiation and mass. ‘Cast out all vessels [and] all other such trinkets as hath blasphemed the name of thy God…’[13]  exhorted the zealous Anglican Bishop John Hooper.

It appears as if paradoxical elements of secrecy and overt Catholic belief are triumphantly combined in the design of this pyx. The clandestine features of the front panel, its covert Catholicism, subtle references and imagery would make the recipient feel as if a secret consecrated Host was being revealed just to them. This is in contrast to the relative overtness of the alternate side of the pyx – the Popish symbolism, imagery and wording leave no doubt in one’s mind that this is a Catholic pyx.

It is an object that provided access to the blessed Host to all those of the Catholic faith who were afflicted by the veritable disease of Protestantism. Perhaps with more comprehensive analysis, this pyx could yield the well-kept secrets of its origins and past – or maybe they are never to be wholly revealed. We are, after all, not its intended congregation.


[1] Christopher Haigh, English Reformations – Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors, (Oxford, 1993), pp. 2-3

[2] Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, pp. 91-3

[3] See notably Lisa McClain, Lest We Be Damned: Practical Innovation and Lived Experience Among Catholics, 1559 – 1642, (London, 2004), on the changing use of space for Catholic recusant worship in Elizabethan England. Richard Williams, ‘Cultures of dissent: English Catholics and the visual arts’, in Benjamin Kaplan, et al (eds), Catholic communities in Protestant states – Britain and the Netherlands c.1570 -1720, (Manchester 2009), pp. 231-232

[4] Conrad Swan, ‘The Question of Dissimulation among Elizabethan Catholics’, Canadian Catholic Historical Association Report, (Ottowa, 1957), pp. 105-19

[5] James F. White, The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith, (London, 1999), pp. 78-91

[6] Robin Emmerson, Church Plate, The Central Board of Finance of the Church of England, (London, 1991) p. 9

[7] ‘A View of Popish Abuses yet remaining in the English Church’ was written by Puritan John Field in 1572 criticising church services. See Stephen Hamrick, The Catholic Imaginary and the Cults of Elizabeth, 1558 – 1582, (Surrey, 2009), p. 139

[8] Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, p. 47

[9] Edward Foley, A Commentary on the Order of Mass of ‘The Roman Missal’, (Minnesota 1973), p. 560

[10] Genesis 22. 5-8

[11] Cullen Schippe, Chuck Stetson, The Bible and Its Influence, (Virginia, 2005), p. 52

[12] Whiting, The Reformation of the English Parish Church, p. 56

[13] Margaret Aston, England’s Iconoclasts: Volume I, Laws against Images, (Oxford, 1988), p. 251


Annie Thwaite – 

Annie is in her second year on the Renaissance stream of the V&A/RCA HoD course, which she joined after doing her BA in History at Warwick University. Whilst exploring many areas of Renaissance material culture, she is particularly interested in the history of Reformation and Restoration England. Annie’s dissertation focuses on ritualistic objects used as apotropaic devices, and the dichotomy between magic and science in in early modern England. She also acts as co-editor in chief of Unmaking Things.


© Annie Thwaite, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *