The Mason’s Silver Bowl and Virginian Religion
Lauren F. Winner—
In 1773, shortly after his wife, Ann, died, George Mason IV wrote his will. There he confirmed his son’s ownership of ‘‘a large silver Bowl given him [George Mason V] by my Mother, in which all my children have been christened, and which I desire remain in the family unaltered for that purpose.’’ This bowl is worth lingering over, for it reveals something important about the ritual in which it was used—Anglican baptism as practiced by gentry like the Masons. Indeed, the Masons’ bowl may be taken as a synecdoche not just for household baptism but for elite Virginians’ household religious practice writ large.
Mason’s short testamentary discussion sets the bowl in a familial context and a liturgical context. Mason explained that the bowl was used for baptism, for washing Mason’s children clean of sin and conferring Christian identity on each child. Baptism was one of Anglicanism’s two sacraments, those mysterious rites that were, in the prayer book’s language, ‘‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’’ Sacraments—events in which the terrestrial and the spiritual worlds met in some especially vital way required, by their nature, material objects. In Holy Communion, those material objects were bread and wine. In baptism, the material object was water, and Mason’s bowl was the baptismal equivalent of a communion chalice, holding, and beautifying, the water.
Mason’s will also identifies the bowl as a family treasure, passed through the generations: George Mason II purchased the bowl, which was made around 1700 by Isaac Dighton, a French Huguenot living in London. Mason II passed it to his son, George Mason III; it was Mason III’s widow, Ann Thomson Mason, who gave the bowl to her grandson, George Mason V. In stating his wishes that the bowl remain ‘‘unaltered,’’ Mason IV signaled his deep connection to the bowl. By the 1770s, when Mason wrote his will, the particular form of this bowl, the monteith, had been out of fashion for more than a generation, but Mason did not want his son to follow the common practice of melting down outmoded silver objects and reshaping them into more modish forms.The bowl’s importance derived not just from its monetary value but from its place in a chain of family transmission and its use in a religious ritual. It was an object handed down from parents to children, and it was an object intimately associated with each of Mason’s children, the four daughters and eight sons who were baptized in the water it held.
If Mason’s will gives some indication of how and why he valued the bowl, the bowl itself—the material of which it is made, its shape, the ornaments that decorate it—suggests something about the meanings of baptism to families like the Masons. To begin, the bowl is silver, an exceptionally valuable and symbolic commodity in the eighteenth century. Silver signaled gentility; in the estimation of the historian Richard Bushman, it was ‘‘perhaps the surest way to assert cultural authority and superiority in colonial society.’’ The Mason bowl spoke to George Mason’s guests, and to the Mason family themselves, about the Masons’ elegance, about their position in a (local) social hierarchy, and about their participation in a (transatlantic) market of luxury goods. But social status is only one meaning we can find in the bowl’s silver gleam. Silver also had a strong association with divinity. Its beauty hinted at the beauty of God, and, to quote Bushman again, a silver object ‘‘trailed clouds of glory as it performed its duties.’’ Silver was used at the altar because of its divine connotations, and in turn its use in the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion further instructed people that silver was the right material to use in rituals where ‘‘divinity was embodied in external forms.’’
Silver’s association with divinity is made explicit by the cherubim that decorate the top of Mason’s bowl. Perhaps those angels first suggested to the Masons that this bowl would be appropriate for use in baptism. Cherubim crop up elsewhere in both ecclesial architecture and household decorative arts of the period; the baptismal font at Christ Church, Lancaster Country, Virginia, for example, was a gray marble bowl decorated with the heads of four cherubs. Especially in the context of baptism, cherubs held a double meaning. First, cherubim connoted death. Angels were said to be present at the deathbeds of faithful Christians, ushering the dying heavenward; that association was underscored by cherubim’s appearance on English tombstones since at least the early eighteenth century. When found on a baptismal font or christening bowl, cherubs, with their associations with mortality, signaled that baptism was a kind of death—a going down into a tomb of water. Of course, the ‘‘death’’ of baptism was a death that culminated in regeneration and, ultimately, resurrection—a point first made by Paul, who reminded the early Christians in his care that ‘‘buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead’’ (Rom 6:3–4). And like baptism itself, cherubs betokened rising up out of death. They reminded faithful Christians that baptism was the first step in a life that ended in heaven; after death, Christians would arrive at God’s heavenly kingdom, where they would be greeted by choirs of angels. As the English churchman John Scott put the matter, ‘‘In our Baptism, wherein we gave up our names to Christ, we became denizens and freemen of heaven. All the difference between [the saints] and us is only this, that we are abroad and they are at home.’’ The bowl’s silver and the smiling angels, then, pointed to the presence of God at baptism, and to baptism’s power to propel the Mason children heavenward. Baptism’s heavenly promises were especially salient given colonial Virginia’s high infant mortality rates. When Richard and James Mason, twins, died within a day of their premature birth, Ann and George Mason may have taken some comfort in the fact that the boys had been baptized as soon as they were born.
From A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith by Lauren F. Winner. Originally published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Lauren F. Winner, an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School, lectures and writes widely about Christianity. She lives in Durham, NC.