Corallium Rubrum: Italian "Red Gold" in Liturgical Art

Corallium rubrum, or red coral, is the name given to a variety of coral found in the Mediterranean which comes in an orangey-reddish shade from whence we derive the name of the colour called "coral rose" -- a particularly popular variant for rose vestments in the eighteenth century and earlier. This coral is something that those who have travelled in Mediterranean countries like Italy or Portugal might be familiar with as it is still visible in store displays as historically, from Graeco-Roman times to present, it has been and continues to be used in the making of jewelry given its beautiful colour.

If you were to source this coral on the seabed, this is what you would see:

Red coral as seen in the sea bottom along with a piece of it shaped and polished for jewelry

Given its beauty and its cultural importance, it should come as little surprise that this product should find its way into liturgical and ecclesiastical art. Here we need to remind ourselves to correct our rather modern, materialist mindset for the lens through which we ought to view these things is that of beauty, not monetary value. Indeed, monetary value has no actual value at all where there is neither the intention nor the opportunity to reclaim the monetary value of the thing, as in the case of liturgical art destined and consecrated to divine worship.  No, the goal is rather more transcendent: as objects of beauty and one's given a cultural value, this beauty and cultural association naturally comes to be expressed also in the art used within the sacred liturgy, for where better to beautify and where better to emphasize the true worth and value of that which we find within the sacred liturgy?

Red coral has made its way into various objects of liturgical art, ranging from its incorporation in metalwork to being interwoven into textiles such as sacred vestments. It is not something commonly seen outside of the Mediterranean, so today we will explore how it has been used in some different objects of liturgical art. It is likewise a good reminder that people would historically use whatever they had at their disposal in order that they might elevate and beautify divine worship. 

Dalmatic from a Solemn Mass set of 1724, decorated in red coral

Chasuble, ca. 1690-1699

Mitre, 18th century

Mitre, 1500-1599 (Sicily)

19th century altar cross

Chalice, ca. 1700-1750
Chalice, 1675-1700

Processional canopy, 18th century

Monstrance, 1726

Altar candlesticks, 1600's

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