Romanitas: The Display of Church Plate for Solemn Occasions and an Inquiry into Roman Origins

A custom found in the Roman church is the rich display of church plate -- called, in Italian, "piatto da parata" -- and the like on important and solemn occasions such as the visit of a Cardinal or at times other important feasts or occasions. Essentially the practice is simply that of setting up a credenza (or possibly a side altar) setup, frequently with two and sometimes three 'steps' (like a gradine) then in turn draped with drapery -- frequently red drapery. On these are placed the metalwork, especially silverware and goldwork, of the host church in question, taking on a decorative function for the occasion in question. 

The practice can be seen here at the Roman parish of Ss. Trinita dei Pellegrini: 

This illuminated miniature showing Pope Sixtus IV at a Missa coram Summo Pontifice in the Sistine chapel also shows this:


Another painted depiction of this practice can be found in a fresco executed in the 17th century, also set within the context of a papal liturgy:

However it was not solely in Rome where we can see this. Here is the same practice as seen in Malta:

The following painting shows the celebrations of the Immaculate Conception in Mexico City in 1855 which also show this practice in evidence:

Detail. The plate can be seen on the middle left and middle right

The painting, "Alfonso XII contemplando en la Capilla real el cuerpo incorrupto de San Fernando" by  José María Romero y López, dated to 1877, shows the same in Spain (and within a context other than the Mass it is worth noting):

Detail. See the side altars at the lower left and right.

Origins of the Practice

Naturally as we gain familiarity with a custom, our next question will frequently be; "Where did this come from?" To answer that, we need to look back to Greco-Roman times.

This practice arguably has at least some of its roots founded within the Greco-Roman world where "parade plates" (piatto da parata) where sometimes gifted by the Roman emperor to his governors on important occasions. In addition, we can also seem to find some roots in the Roman banquet when such displays of pomp were also made in the form of the hosts displaying their precious silver and the like when hosting a banquet. An example of just such a display can be seen in a Roman fresco preserved in Pompeii within the tomb of Caius Vestorius Priscus, clearly showing a Roman table bearing a rich display of the host's silver:

It is also within this context that we can also understand a similar sort of depiction in Guilio Romano's Renaissance era fresco, "The Wedding Banquet of Cupid and Pysche," painted between 1526-28, depicting a noble wedding banquet, the plates albeit being setup in a format more consonant with the Medieval and Renaissance era expression of this custom:

A similar scene, also from the 16th century, is shown in A. Boscoli's "Convivo degli dei" in the Villa di Cortiano:


Within a secular context, these objects might have been gifts presented to the family for occasions such as weddings, gift or other family heirlooms. What's more, more than just plates came to be added to these displays, similar to our Roman example earlier, frequently also including ewers and other precious metal objects in general -- and it must be remembered that none of these objects were intended for actual use in the banquet itself; they were meant as decorative displays; an ornamental imperative.

If this practice was found in worldly banquets, however, it not to be reserved solely to them but also found expression within the greatest banquet of all: the Eucharistic banquet.  Within this context the function is similar but takes on a further ceremonial sort of aspect, even being technically 'required' for the Pontifical Masses of the cardinals. In this context, instead of showing forth items owned by a particular family or host, they were instead those of the 'family' and host that was the particular church. These items could be simply decorative or they might also be commemorative, depicting an important event or personage.  Here are a few examples coming from 18th century Italy:

Of course, as the photos and depictions in this article attest, it was not simply these plates that were displayed, but one could also see all manner of other objects displayed, most frequently metalwork -- some of which had liturgical functions, such as the ewer and basin used in Pontifical Masses for example, alms dishes for collecting money for the poor and so on. 

Some churches even installed permanent credenzas which were used for this purpose:

This practice certainly shows how the Church has frequently found itself to be the bridge between the classical world and the modern one. 

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