Thursday, March 14, 2013


The altarpiece known as a monstrance, or ostensorium, is traditionally used to display the sacramental bread for Holy Communion (monstrances may also display relics). Entirely hand-wrought in 14K gold, the bejeweled example shown here was fabricated by Gustav Manz and incorporates gems donated by the congregants of St. Francis Assisi Church in Manhattan in the late 1920s. 

It's possible the wardens of St. Francis commissioned the piece in 1926 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the saint's death. It took Manz, who was then 60 years old, about four years to complete. There's a long history of donating old scraps of jewelry as votive offerings, and Manz was associated with more than one of those projects: Father James R. Cox, a radio personality and early challenger of FDR for the Democratic party presidential nomination in 1932, carried an ostensorium with him on one of his annual pilgrimages to Lourdes as a gift from his home parish in Pittsburgh. And one of Manz's nephews recalls Manz working on a piece destined for Cathedral of St. John the Divine, while William T. Manning was Episcopal Bishop of New York (though we've not been able to document its whereabouts). 


The vessel Manz created for St. Francis church stands 25 inches high and is composed of 6 pounds (1920 dwt.) of gold, and scores of platinum-set diamonds, pink tourmalines, and other stones. Enameled lettering decorates some of the goldwork surrounding the luna (the glass compartment where the host is displayed) along with a great deal of hand-chased detail, including Manz's bas relief portraits of Saint Francis and his famous disciple, Saint Anthony of Padua—popularly known as the patron of lost things.

Upon its completion in 1932, The Jewelers' Circular pronounced the St. Francis vessel Manz's "crowning triumph... Rarely indeed has any one man been permitted to design and execute an entire piece of that magnitude, involving as it does every phase of the jeweler's art" (JC, December 1932). But the Great Depression and war rationing a few years later made flaunting gold at the altar, even communal wealth from the sacristy, not only unsafe but unseemly with so many ordinary New Yorkers hard-pressed to cover bare necessities. 

And so, for many decades, the vessel was stowed in a locked closet, inside a specially fitted case, and out of commission—until a friend of Manz's great-grandchildren contacted Timothy Shreenan O.F.M, director of liturgy and communications at St. Francis church, who helped organize a reunion-slash-photo session in midtown Manhattan in January. 

While a church associate fetched the monstrance from its vault, a family member inquired whether Brother Tim could pinpoint when it had last carried the host during a mass. Not in any of the years he'd been assigned to the diocese, said the friar, who joined the order in 1986. Nor, it seems, did Manz leave behind a record of instructions from the diocese, a blueprint, correspondence or notes about the iconography on the piece. 

We can only speculate about the crows flanking the luna but it seems likely they are a reference to St. Francis's famous sermon to the birds: "Ye sow not, neither do ye reap, and God feedeth you and giveth you the rivers and the fountains for your drink." His message—that providence is ever-bounteous but not to take the privilege for granted—was so well received by the flock, legend goes, that Francis and his friars were energized to carry forth their ministry. It clearly resonates, too, for Manhattan's Franciscan community, which runs a daily breadline for hungry New Yorkers outside the church's West 32nd Street entrance, as it has done continuously since 1930.   

All images (c) Gustav Manz LLC. Special thanks to Fr. Timothy Shreenan, O.F.M., Director of Liturgy & Communications, Saint Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church


Copyright ©
Laura Mathews 2013
All Rights Reserved GUSTAV MANZ LLC

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