Lacock Cup: Curator's blog

The British Museum and Wiltshire Museum have jointly acquired the Lacock Cup, a silver 15th-century chalice, with help from the Art Fund. Curator Naomi Speakman writes about its unusual and varied history.

The Lacock Cup is a rare survivor from Medieval England with a unique story.

Produced in the early- to mid-15th century, it was originally a drinking cup made for feasting, which after the Reformation was used by the church of Saint Cyriac’s in Lacock, Wiltshire, as a chalice for communion. As an object which has been central to shared consumption, of wine at a feast and wine for the sacrament, the Lacock Cup tells these two stories of its original secular context and later religious status.

An item of elegant beauty and simplicity, it is of a type known as a chalice-shaped cup, which was popular in the late Middle Ages. Despite its contemporary popularity, few pieces of secular silver survive today – the majority of cups would have been melted down for their precious metal or due to changing fashions.

Formed of nearly 1kg of silver, which is gilded in places, it is a sizable amount of bullion and would have been a costly and showy item to own. Silver was incredibly popular in the medieval period, and the tables of lords would have been adorned with finely crafted cups and salt cellars. Both objects were central to the nobleman’s feast; the salt cellars and drinking cups were supplied by the host while knives and spoons would be brought by guests.

The artistry of the Lacock Cup reveals its role for show and display, which was as important as its function for drinking: it has a large bowl and tall trumpet-shaped foot and base, topped by a sweeping lid. With such exaggerated style, and standing at 35cm in height, the Cup was designed to be seen across the hall, making an elegant statement across the lord’s table.

The restrained ornamentation of the Cup is a feature often acknowledged by visitors; it has even been described by some as minimalist in appearance. As it bares no religious imagery it was perfectly suited to function as a chalice in a post-reformation church, which eschewed religious iconography. It is thought that the Cup was given to the church of Saint Cyriac for use as their chalice in the 17th century. From this point the Cup assumed its new role, as holy vessel, and remained in use for hundreds of years until it was loaned to the British Museum by the church in 1963.

The Lacock Cup will be on public display at the British Museum from 20 December in the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Medieval Europe 1050-1500, Room 40, alongside other treasures from the period, such as the Royal Gold Cup and the Lewis Chessmen.

The Lacock Cup was jointly acquired by the British Museum and the Wiltshire Museum with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, John Studzinski, the Art Fund, the American Friends of the British Museum, the British Museum Friends, the Jean Sibley Bequest, the Charity Fund of International Partners Limited in memory of Melvin R Seiden, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, the Headley Trust and individual contributions.

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