Portapalme

Some readers may notice from time to time, particularly in Italian and Italianate churches, the utilization of a kind of ornamental object that sits between the altar candlesticks in the way reliquaries often do. These objects take various shapes and forms but amount to a kind of stylized looking floral arrangement.

The objects in question are known in Italian as "portapalme" and are essentially a vase or vase-like base containing artificial flowers made of various possible materials, including silk, metal (such as brass or silver), or even gilt wood. The shape of these arrangements were generally symmetrical and highly stylized.

Our friend Maurizio Bettoja commented on this accordingly when he wrote for us on this subject many years ago:
These embossed metal palms are extremely stylized representations of bouquets of flowers which were arranged in a very symmetrical composition. This kind of palma, or even imitations of sprays of flowers, were also often made in silver and in silver filigree, but these are extremely rare after the French invasion and sacking of Italy.

Sometimes portapalme were fashioned in gilt wood, and also gilt and decorated in black and gold for funerals. Palme were even fashioned to hold relics at the center of the flowers.

Fresh flowers were generally considered not in the best of taste, in part because decaying flowers were a well known emblem of mortality and vanity, whereas artificial flowers carried an idea of eternity and Paradise. But it must be said that fresh flowers were often used also.

By the mid 19th century very tall bouquets of artificial flowers crafted in painted metal or tiny Murano glass beads were fashionable ... but the more common type [were] highly stylized, almond shaped bouquets -- the almond shape edged with silver or gold lace/silk, with silk flowers and leaves disposed in a regular pattern within the almond, interspersed with gold and silver filigree, lace and decoration. Coloured and gilt paper were also frequently used in these productions. Due to their perishability, almost none of these have survived.
To give you a better sense, here are some examples of portapalme in various shapes and types.

18th century. Embossed and gilt copper. Ss. Trinita Dei Pellegrini, Rome. 
Basilica di Santa Maria della Steccata. (Photo: Nicola de Grandi)
19th century.
19th century, gilt wood

Private chapel. (Photo: Luca Pavan Bresciano)
Late 17th to early 18th century in carved, gilt wood and silvered copper
My own personal favourite form of portapalme are these which utilize a more "naturalistic" form of stylized flower, usually done uniformly in silver or brass:

London Oratory. (Photo: Charles Cole)
Of course, what many will be particularly interested to see is how they are utilized in liturgical practice in relation to the altar. As noted earlier, their arrangement is typically very much akin to the way reliquaries are displayed in a traditional altar arrangement, set upon a gradine and alternating between the altar candlesticks.  Here are just a few examples in practice.

You will see the portapalme on the upper gradine between the six high altar candlesticks. Superb.
London Oratory. (Detail of photo by Charles Cole) 
A similar arrangement may be found at Cardinal Newman's own Birmingham Oratory. 
A private domestic chapel in Italy.
(Photo: Luca Pavan Bresciano) 
A private domestic chapel in Italy.
(Photo: Luca Pavan Bresciano) 
S. Maria degli Angeli, Rome. 
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