Civilisations Festival: The Derwent Chalice

This rare silver chalice was crafted in 1584 by a London goldsmith whose mark - an M intersected by a line - identifies it as one of only three of his known works still in existence.

It was originally a 'Magdalen cup', a style of covered beaker often used by women and named for the pot of ointment held by Mary Magdalen in artworks dating back to the 1500s. The engravings adorning the cup are typical of its period, featuring swags of drapery, fruit, foliage, and creatures both real and mythical. Pictured within the pattern are an eagle, an orange, a turtle, a griffon and the phoenix, and experts have speculated on possible elemental meanings behind the design: the eagle for air, the phoenix for fire, the turtle for water and the orange for earth. The symbolic meaning of the griffon remains unknown.

The cup seems to have come into the ownership of the Balguy family, who built Derwent Hall in the Derbyshire village of Derwent in 1672. it was most probably gifted that same year by Henry Balguy to Derwent Chapel, which was used by the family. A small cross carved inside the cover possibly indicates its transition from secular to religious use. The chapel, and its later replacement, were eventually superseded by the Church of St. James and St John, begun in 1867.

The story of this church and the community it served came to an end in 1943. The village was 'drowned', and its population relocated, with the completion of Ladybower reservoir which was built to serve the rapidly expanding cities of the English Midlands. The church spire was the last of the village buildings to disappear from view, and this poignant yet hopeful image – of a spire rising from the waters – is now the logo of St Cyprian's Church at Frecheville, Sheffield. Some of the treasures of Derwent Church were placed in the care of St Cyprian's, including the chalice. In 2017 the chalice came to its new home of Sheffield Cathedral. 

As a secular product of Elizabethan craftsmanship, as a sacred artefact, and as a memorial to a Derbyshire village sacrificed to supply our region with fresh water, the story of the ‘Derwent Chalice’ reflects multiple expressions of the concept of civilisation: artistic creativity, the Christian faith and continuing community, and modern engineering ingenuity.

Civilisations Festival events are running at a range of locations, including Sheffield Cathedral, between 2 and 11 March 2018. To learn more about exhibitions and events in our area and beyond - and to see some of the objects of interest on display - you can visit the Museum Crush Civilisations Festival website.