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Pyx

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1310-1325 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Silver, engraved; gold

  • Museum number:

    M.15&A-1950

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 9, The Dorothy and Michael Hintze Gallery, case 4 []

A Pyx (from the Greek pyxis meaning box) was used to contain the consecrated host. In the medieval period, wealthy people accumulated religious plate for their private chapels. This small pyx is one such example of a religious object made for private use.This pyx, decorated with scenes from the life of Christ, was originally entirely covered with bright translucent enamel.The imagery and style of these scenes are close to contemporary illuminated manuscripts. Not only is the pyx of very high quality, but it is the only surviving piece of its kind in silver and one of very few surviving pyxes from medieval England.

Physical description

The Swinburne Pyx. A circular silver and silver-gilt container with a flat lid, fastened with a bayonet joint. All the engraved surfaces on the interior and exterior were formerly decorated with translucent enamel, of which minute fragments remain (black, blue, green, brown).Around the exterior of the container is engraved an arcade of six triple-cusped ogee arches, the area within each roughly scored, obliterating either simple drapery or more elaborate scenes. A gilt band of punched pellets decorates the base of the container and the rim of the lid.

The exterior of the lid is engraved with a ground of stylized ermine fur, against which stand the Virgin and Child, the Virgin is crowned with flowers in here right hand.The interior of the lid is a scene of the Nativity. The base of the container is engraved on the interior with the head of Christ with crossed halo within a sexfoil border, the exterior base is engraved with a similar frame enclosing the Lamb of God.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

1310-1325 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Silver, engraved; gold

Dimensions

Height: 3 cm, Diameter: 5.7 cm, Weight: 0.08 kg

Object history note

Purchase from Mrs L.G. Swinburne, widow of the last of the Swinburnes of Capheaton, Northumberland, 1950.

Historical significance: This object is a good example of Gothic style. The architectural engraving upon the pyx and the naturalism of the figures are signs of a typically Gothic design. Basse taille enamel (known as translucent enamel) was a technique developed in the 13th and 14th century, at the height of the Gothic period.

In the medieval period, wealthy people accumulated religious plate for their private chapels. This pyx is probably one such example of a religious object for private use. The pyx was in the possession of the Swinburne family since medieval times and its small size indicates that it was most likely used in a private chapel.

Only two early English pyxes have survived: the Swinburne Pyx and the Godsfield Pyx (M.360-1921) from the 14th century. The Swinburne Pyx is the only silver example to have survived.

The depiction of the Virgin upon this pyx is very like one in the Peterborough Psalter (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 53). The Nativity scene is very similar to the Cambridge University Library Book of Hours of Alice de Reydon. The goldsmith must therefore have had access to the same copy books as the illuminators of these manuscripts. The pyx therefore is a unique example of the close relationship between illuminators and goldsmiths in this period.

The Swinburne family are related to Alice de Reydon from Suffolk, who appears as donor in the De Reydon Hours. The pyx may have come to the Swinburne family as an heirloom from the Suffolk branch of the family after Alice de Reydon's death. As at least one of the Swinburnes was a recusant, it may have been used after the Reformation in clandestine masses.

Historical context note

A Pyx (from the Greek pyxis meaning box) was used to contain the consecrated host. In the medieval period, it came in various forms, the most standard being a conical shape. Although silver was the preferred metal, other materials were also used, a practice noted by the English King Henry VII to his 'inward regret and displeasure'.

Descriptive line

The Swinburne Pyx, silver, silver gilt, England, ca. 1310-1325

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Campbell, Marian, An Introduction to Medieval Enamels, London: HMSO, 1983, p. 39, fig. 30
Claude Blair, 'English Church Plate: Pt 1, Pre Reformation', 52nd Annual Report, Friends of Gloucester Cathedral, 1988, p.29
The Basel Treasury Cathedral Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Yale University Press, 2001
Charles Oman, 'The Swinburne Pyx', Burlington Magazine, Vol 92, no. 573, December 1950, pp.337-341
Alexander, Jonathan, and Paul Binski (eds.), Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987.
Campbell, Marian. 'Paris - Mirror or Lamp to English Medieval Royal Goldsmiths?', The Ricardian: Journal of the Richard III Society, Vol. XIII, 2003. pp. 100-13.

Labels and date

THE SWINBURNE PYX
Silver, parcel gilt, originally covered with translucent enamel
The design of the Virgin and Child and Nativity scenes is very similar to illuminations in two manuscripts made for East Anglican clients, now in Cambridge (University Library ms Dd.4.17 and Corpus Christi College ms 53). The pyx was long owned by the Swinburnes of Pontop, Co. Durham, for one of whose relations the Corpus Christi manuscript was originally made.
English; about 1325 []

Materials

Silver; Gold

Techniques

Engraving; Gilding

Categories

Metalwork; Religion; Christianity

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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