The Sacramental Keepsake Box

I'm finally finished. I still can't believe it. I feel lost, not having a driving, desperate need to accomplish something (besides cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, and taking care of the kids). But since I was deprived of explaining to my daughter's class the meaning behind the box, I'm going to do it on here.
   First off, this is a sacramental keepsake box that is meant to hold important objects (pictures, rosary, baptismal candle, etc.) that accumulate as one participates in the 7 Sacraments. It's part of the 2nd- grade class basket that will be auctioned off at the school gala. The kids are all supposed to participate in the making of it in some way. So I had them do their own religious-themed drawings and I used them to line the inside of the box. Some of the kids' artwork blew me away and others did about as expected.
   Anyways, being the showoff that I am, I offered to take care of the outside of the box. Actually, that's not quite my reason - I figured that I'd be really annoyed if this box wound up with something blah on it like the kids' signatures or stick figures or handprints. I truly believed that these kids were old enough to do something a little more meaningful for a class project. That and the box was supposed to be religious in nature. Which, if you know anything about me, you already know that illuminated manuscripts have been my specialty since high school. So if anything less than excellence was on this box I'd complain.
   I did an awful lot of research on this. Pages and pages of it. Some of it I didn't know, since the information just hadn't been discovered at the time I last did this, and some of it I knew but had forgotten somewhere during the raising of my children.
   Anyways, here is pretty much what I wrote as a note (a long one, I know!) and included inside the box itself. This is the extended edition:

This box was created to honor not only the sacred sacraments, but also the rich history of art in the Catholic church. To this end, each of the first four sacraments is represented, one on each side of the box. The artwork itself is drawn from and inspired by different cultures throughout history, including Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Celtic, Persian, Ethiopian, Russian, Jewish, and even the art found on the walls and in the songbooks of the missions of the western United States. Each color, motif, symbol, and number of objects was chosen to have meaning. 
The theme of this year's First Holy Communion is "The Prayer of St. Francis"; therefore it is an integral part of the box. The top, where the prayer begins, was inspired by the Garima Gospels of Ethiopia. They are the oldest illuminated manuscripts in Christian history, and it seems fitting to begin there. Each virtue of the prayer has an accompanying symbol that has religious significance. 

Here, representing peace, are both the single white dove, and the separate olive branch.  
Notice the dove doesn't have a halo, which would instead mean the Holy Spirit. The Garima Gospels feature lots of birds, but I was particularly enamored of a picture of a cute looking little dove on one of the pages. Mine is nowhere near as nice. But at least you can tell what it is, right? 
     One thing that really got my attention on the Garima Gospels, and Ethiopian manuscripts in general, was their lack of symmetry in a lot of the designs. So, if you look closely, you'll notice that each corner gold motif is slightly different than its neighbors. 
In choosing what kind of font I should use, I knew that I wanted one that was fairly easy to read (Luxeuil manuscript is my favorite, but anyone that looks at it doesn't even think it's written in English because it has so many ligatures), but that also exemplified the beauty of religious illuminations. I went with what is sometimes called Rustica. It has lots of other names too, but basically it's the same type of script used in a lot of Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian, Bulgarian, Italian, Frankish...manuscripts. I could go on listing others, but basically it seemed to transcend cultures more than any other type of script. And the fact that it's all capital letters made it more appealing to use in a project like this. 
   The colors on the top of the box are used on all sides. Red symbolizes the passion of Christ, as well as the fire of the Pentecost and sometimes, commemoration of martyred saints.  Light blue stands for heaven and truth. Dark blue is meant for the welcome of a king; also it represents the night sky where the star of Bethlehem appeared. Gold is for God's divinity. 
The cross on top is decorated with 12 stones. They represent the breastplate mentioned in Exodus 28:15-21, as well as the foundation stones in  Revelations 21:19-21. 

Exodus 28:15-21
And thou shalt make the rational of judgment with embroidered work of diverse colors, according to the workmanship of the ephod, of gold, violet, and purple, and scarlet twice dyed, and fine twisted linen. It shall be four square and doubled: it shall be the measure of a span both in length and in breadth. And thou shalt set in it four rows of stones. In the first row shall be a sardius stone, and a topaz, and an emerald: In the second a carbuncle, a sapphire, and a jasper: In the third a ligurius, an agate, and an amethyst: In the fourth a chrysolite, an onyx, and a beryl. They shall be set in gold by their rows. And they shall have the names of the children of Israel: with twelve names shall they be engraved, each stone with the name of one according to the twelve tribes.
Revelations 21:19-2
And the foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper: the second, sapphire: the third; a chalcedony: the fourth, an emerald: The fifth, sardonyx: the sixth, sardius: the seventh, chrysolite: the eighth, beryl: the ninth, a topaz: the tenth, a chrysoprasus: the eleventh, a jacinth: the twelfth, an amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each individual gate was of one pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, as it were, transparent glass.
    Because of the inaccuracy of mineral names in the Bible, I have followed the Catholic and Jewish Encyclopedias for guidance in choosing semi-precious gems. The 40 freshwater pearls (40 meaning a period of testing or trial) represent the pearls set at each of 12 gates of the kingdom of Jerusalem, also in the book of Revelations. 12 is a number that represents perfection of government.
    I didn't mention it in the original notes because I was trying to keep it short, but each gem has a meaning (a characteristic, if you will, like faithfulness, courage, etc.), and is assigned a zodiac symbol as well.
The rest of the prayer is divided into four parts. Each is assigned a sacrament based on how well the sacrament embodies the virtues within each section of the prayer.

SACRAMENT: Communion, represented by the chalice (Forgiveness of sins)

 STYLE: late medieval Italian
COLOR: white, represents purity, innocence, and holiness
  • love- the heart motif found in each corner; 4 groups of 4, a number which represents God's creative works . 
  • pardon - also represented by the chalice
  • faith- the shield of St. Constantine
  • the vine motif is to represent our relationship with Jesus (He is the vine, we are the branches)

SACRAMENT: Baptism, represented by the scallop shell (which also stands as a symbol for the apostle James the Greater, and for those on Holy Pilgrimage)


STYLE: Byzantine, Greek, Bulgarian
COLOR: green, for the triumph of life over death
  • hope - anchor (In Hebrews 6:19 - "This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil..." It was one of the symbols of the early Church and was used a lot in the catacombs.
  • light- baptismal candle
  • joy- palm branches

I was completely torn on this one. There was an unusual Bulgarian piece that had the most glorious color combination and I really wanted to use it but it wouldn't have been as cohesive to the rest of the box. Then I tried to imitate a color scheme on a Greek piece I also liked, but it wasn't until I looked at the box as a whole that I was able to come up with the current color selection. Originally I was going to leave this side of the box as unpainted wood, with only the designs painted in. It looked out of place with the rest of the box. It wasn't originally intentional, but now I quite like the idea of the box being predominately turquoise. It's not too girly, and not too boyish either. As fabric designer Tula Pink says, "Aqua is like black. It goes with everything." I agree.

SACRAMENT: Confirmation, the Chi Ro symbol 
This is a combination of the first two letters of Christ's name (think of it like the Spanish, "Cristo", and then the pronunciation of the Greek makes sense. It's pronounced like "key" not "kai". It has been used on all kinds of things, from official documents and coins to being a marker for important passages in books. 

STYLE: Celtic, Frankish, American Mission songbooks
COLOR: amber. In the KJV (King James) translation of the book of Ezekiel, it stands for God's glory and brilliant presence. It also can also represent fire.
  • consolation- the owl. The explanation on this one is long and convoluted, but since I saw owls on several manuscripts (and believe me, some of them were pretty scary looking!) I decided to use it anyways. Basically, the owl seeks out its prey in the night, in the same way Christ seeks out sinners in the darkness. This is a consolation to us sinners that He can see us even in the dark, and that He will never stop trying to bring us back to the Light. The owl can also have a negative meaning, since the owl shuns the light and prefers darkness; however, it can be interpreted as Christ shunning glory and praise and preferring humility and modesty, particularly by His death on the cross. This fellow is done in the Frankish style.
  • understanding - lightning
  • love- the turtledove. The turtledove takes one mate for life, and so can mean fidelity as well as love. 

 The thousands of tiny amber colored dots are probably my favorite part of the box!

SACRAMENT: Reconciliation, represented by the roses (5 roses = the wounds of Christ). The flower translated as "rose" was actually something more like a crocus to the Hebrews of Biblical times. The use of the flower we know today as the rose was actually something that didn't happen until later, when Christianity merged with Greek customs. I chose, for the sake of easy recognition, to go with the more familiar "rose" that we associate with the Virgin Mary. After all, she was Jesus' mother, so she deserves a little recognition here on this box too.

 STYLE: Spanish Hebrew, English, Persian, German
COLOR: purple, penitence
  • receive- the keys of St. Peter (a symbol of the power received by the papacy from Jesus)
  • pardon- the Pelican in her Piety ( a popular motif for atonement; the pelican is believed to wound itself to feed its children in times of need) 
  • eternal life- the peacock (it was believed that its flesh did not decay after death)
  • there are also 33 gold stars for Jesus.
  • The inspiration for this side is largely derived from a Spanish Hebrew manuscript; the Hebrew name of God is inscribed in the right-hand corner on here to remind us of our Judeo-Christian roots. Sometimes mistakenly called "Yahweh" or "Jehovah" (when you read it BACKWARD!), it is actually never pronounced in Jewish tradition. Instead it is customary to substitute the name Adonai, or Lord.)
The letters are Yod, Hey, Vav, Hey (right to left, of course!)
 The ineffable name of God is my other favorite part of the box, besides the dots on the Confirmation side.

     Each of the children of Mrs. Brown's second grade class made drawings of religious symbols. Ranging from angels and families to rainbows, rings and crosses, these line the inside of the box.  I wish I'd gotten the chance to go more in-depth with a little history or something to give them some inspiration, but they seemed to grasp the concept very quickly and most were eager to come up with ideas for their own designs.

     The box was painted in acrylic paints, with 23 karat gold leaf, gold jewelry findings, semi-precious stones, and freshwater pearls. The inside is lined with red felt on the bottom; as well as the kids' artwork on the sides, which are sealed and varnished for protection.  
     I drew a little rough sketch of each design, making sure I included all the elements that I needed. Then I drew a full-scale copy on tracing paper, which I traced over on the reverse with a soft pencil. I placed the copy directly on the wood box and burnished it on. 
For the calligraphy, I drew the letters individually, then went over it with a C4 nib and ink. I traced those on the reverse as well, then burnished them to the box.

Once my design was on the box, I painted the color on first (for the most part). Because I wanted each side of the box to reflect a different style, I knew that I would have to rely on color to make the thing cohesive. Which is why I came up with the color scheme of 3 colors plus gold (there's that number 3 again!), and then one color unique to each side. That makes 5 colors per side; 5 is the number of Divine Grace.  So, 8 colors total, which stands for salvation, resurrection, and new birth.  

     For the gold I laid down gold leaf sizing (I have finally found one that works EVERY time without fail - I'm so excited!), then waited for it to dry. When it was dry, cut out a small piece of gold and picked it up with my tweezers. I blew on the letters, then laid the gold down and smoothed it down with a soft brush. There were times when I got a little light-headed from so much heavy breathing. 
     After that I gently burnished all the goldwork with my agate burnisher, and finally swept away the excess gold leaf. There are still particles of gold all over my kitchen, my clothes, my hair, my face. Pardon my gold dust!
    Everything was well and good until I injured my hand/arm and had to manage one-handed (and left-handed at that) for a good week or so. I couldn't even move my fingers. I panicked and then decided to keep pushing on. I had a deadline to meet. There was a point where I was doing the goldwork and holding some of the tools in my teeth because I really needed that extra hand. And painting left-handed is different that writing left-handed, so if some of the designs aren't perfect, that's why. 
     I don't really know what else to say about this piece except that it was a lot harder than I thought it would be, a lot more work than I thought it would be, and I'm really going to miss working on it. But not so much that I'd want to do it again. Especially in such a short amount of time (about 3 weeks). 
     Special thanks goes out to my kids, who were mostly understanding enough to let me work all day and all night (as much as possible, anyways), and to my artistic advisor, Michael Trujillo. I couldn't have done this without you! Mostly because I'm terrible at decision making really late at night and without sleep. And because when you're right, you're right. And you, you're always right. :)


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