Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Vessels for Holy Oils

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 7
Vessels for Holy Oils

by Henri Leclercq


In Christian antiquity there existed an important category of vessels used as receptacles for holy oil. These were the ampullae or pittacia, which varied greatly in material as well as shape, being of wood, metal, ivory, and even more frequently of earthenware. Sometimes the vessel was flat-shaped, resembling the bulla, or again it took the form of a thimble or little flagon. Those most numerous at present are the "ampullae of St. Menas". There was scarcely a place of pilgrimage that did not have its beneficial or miraculous oil, which would be carried great distances to satisfy the pious or to relieve the sick. On this point there is abundant ancient testimony. To the oil was attributed a participation in the virtues of the saints with whom it had in some way been in contact. Hence, not alone the oil from lamps that had burned before their tombs but that also which was supposed to have issued from the tombs themselves or from the images of the saints was prized. The most celebrated document on this subject is the "Index oleorum" or "List of the holy oils", sent to Queen Theodelinde by Gregory the Great. This list was accompanied by ampullae, a certain number of which have been preserved in the treasury of the Basilica of Monza.

Towards the close of the sixth century the custom of reserving to the bishop the blessing of the holy oils on Holy Thursday had been established and gradually propagated, and the priests of each diocese were obliged to provide themselves with oil sufficient for their needs throughout the year. If, at the time of receiving the new oil, any of the old was still unused, it had to be destroyed, that is, either burned or thrown into the piscina of the church. Each church, therefore, had but a limited number of vessels destined to hold the oils. The councils of the ninth and succeeding centuries frequently warned the priests and bishops to take precautions against the stealing of the holy oils. Indeed, in those days malefactors entertained the superstitious belief that they would not be discovered if they would but rub their bodies with the holy oils. In order to prevent such desecration, the holy oils were kept in some secure place, either in a closet or in the sacristy.

The material of the vessels has varied greatly. In the fourth century St. Optatus of Mileve relates that the Donatist heretics seized and profaned a glass vessel filled with holy chrism (Migne, P.L., vol. XI, col. 972). In the Middle Ages crystal, gold, silver, and less precious metals were used. A thirteenth-century rock crystal vase from the Abbey of Saint-Evroult (Orne) is three and one-half inches in height and is surmounted by a lid of silver gilt encrusted with coloured stones (de Caumont, "Abécédaire d'arch. religieuse", p. 567); an inventory of Old St. Paul's, London, mentions three silver ampullae containing oil and chrism (Dugdale, "Monast. anglic.", III, 310) and an inventory of the Laon cathedral, in 1523, mentions three large phial-shaped silver vessels used for keeping the holy chrism, holy oil, and oil for the sick. In the interior of each receptacle was a long silver rod that served as a spoon. Inventories of Jumièges and Rouen, York and London speak of vessels of gold and of silver gilt enclosed in a small cabinet and furnished with spoons for the extraction of the liquid. These vases are designated as flagons, ampullae, estuy, and phialae, and the cabinet containing them is known as the chrismatorium, chrismate, cresmeau, and coresmier. St. Charles Borromeo drew up minute instructions concerning the vessels for the holy oils. He declared that each individual church should have two, either of silver or pewter, for each kind of oil, each vessel bearing the name of the oil contained therein. Almost the same rules are observed to-day. The vessels are usually cylindrical in form and fitted with screw tops marked with the letters: S. C. (sanctum chrisma); O.S. (oleum sanctum, oil of catechumens); O. I. (oleum infirmorum).

BARRAUD, Notice sur les saintes huiles et les vases qui servent a les contenir in Bulletin monumental, 4th series, VII (1871), 451- 505; HELLEPUTTE, Materiaux pour servir a l'histoire des vases aux saintes huiles in Revue de l'art chretien, 3rd series, II (1884), 146-53; SCHNUTGEN, Materiaux pour servir a l'histoire des vases a saintes huiles, ibid., 455-62; SCACCHI, Sacrorum elaeochrismatum myrothecia tria (Rome, 1625).

H. LECLERCQ