Like so many traditions in the church, the choice and design of vessels used in worship have very practical beginnings.
The photo above shows a modern setting for the Passover meal, with wine in an engraved silver cup, unleavened bread, and quality linens. Yet anyone familiar with Christian worship in the liturgical style will automatically begin to draw parallels to the chalice (cup), paten (plate on which the bread rests), and linens used in Communion services.
Where did these traditions begin? And what might the original utensils have looked like? No one knows the answers to these questions for certain, but some general facts are known.
The chalice and paten (in the Christian church) have traditionally been made of the same material. In the 1600s-1700s it was not unusual for them to be made of pewter. In the Middle Ages (600AD onwards) gold or silver encrusted with enamels and precious stones was not unusual. In the early church (circa 300s AD and before) the materials used might have been glass, ivory, wood or clay. St. John Chrysostom (300s-early 400s) wrote that the original chalice used by Jesus was “not silver or gold” but he didn’t record what it was. According to the Roman Catholic online encyclopedia New Advent, the chalice used by Jesus was most likely to have been nearly stemless, vase-shaped, and two-handled. (Interesting to note that Europeans of later centuries would call this two-handled design a “loving cup”.)
In the days of the early church, the paten or plate would have originally been quite large, as it would have held all the pieces of bread broken from the main loaf to be passed around the congregation. (Communion wafers were a later invention.) Generally speaking it would be made of the same material and design as the chalice.
Both the chalice and the paten were taken from the “Last Supper”, which was the last Passover meal Jesus ate with His disciples. Therefore the cup and the bread came from the Jewish Passover traditions, and indicates the tableware would have been Palestinian or Hebrew in design. The Passover being a holiday meal, the dishes used by Jesus and the disciples would have been “the good dishes” so to speak — not everyday tableware but dishes used for special occasions. More than that, and how many centuries BC Jewish tradition would take us, is not known for certain.
I should mention one other piece of equipment used in many Christian traditions, and that is the thurible or censer. The thurible is used to burn incense. Modern ones are nearly always made of metal, usually silver or brass, and are frequently ornately decorated. Incense was used in the early church to make the church smell good, and before then it was used in Jewish temple worship. Again, the design of ancient incense-burning instruments is not known, but a modern thurible is shown above.
Anyone with more information on the design and construction of these items, and the artistry that goes into it, please add your thoughts!