HERITAGE TREASURES: Engraved Pugin pyx

By Brian Andrews, Archdiocese of Hobart Heritage Officer

In True Principles, his highly influential 1841 book on architecture, Bishop Willson’s friend Pugin, the great English architect, stated that “the smallest detail should have a meaning or serve a purpose”.

This principle was applied equally to his designs for the applied arts and is perhaps no more exquisitely expressed than in the taut, beautifully balanced engraved design on the lid of this pyx, manufactured by Bishop Willson’s friend John Hardman of Birmingham in 1849–50.

The cross composed equally of vines and wheat is a succinct summation of Catholic Eucharistic theology. It identifies the Mass with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and its ongoing fruits, which, through the consecrated elements of bread and wine become individually and equally both the body and the blood of Christ. This points to the purpose of the pyx which is for carrying consecrated Hosts to the sick and dying.

The hinged lid and slightly more elaborate engraving of this pyx show it to be a grade up from the pyxes first brought out by Willson to Van Diemen’s Land in 1844. Its dished underside is a telling example of Pugin’s attention to design functionalism and his principle that the smallest detail should have a meaning or serve a purpose. This simple feature ensured that a consecrated Host could be removed from the pyx without damage by merely pressing down on one side of it with the finger, thereby raising the other side for picking up.

From the date of the hallmarks, this pyx must be part of the ‘sale or return’ goods—all stock items—that Hardman supplied to Bishop Willson in 1854. Willson’s 1860 list of unsold items included ‘4 Silver Pyxes @ 28/6 £5 14  0’. No wonder he declared to his English agent, Fr Thomas Paulinus Heptonstall OSB, that: “The mistake was in sending so many things. I had nothing to do in the selection of them.”

Tags: Heritage Conservation, News