Celebrating the sacred liturgy in cold climates before the advent of central heating presented interesting challenges to the proper observance of the Mass. Spacious structures like cathedrals and abbeys could become extremely frigid in the winter. We see a reflection of this in the 1572 De defectibus (“On Defects in the Celebration of the Mass”), the instruction on the proper confection of the Eucharist that used to be included in the Roman Missal. De defectibus lists defects that were liable to occur during the Mass which priests were to be attentive for. Near the end of the list, we see the following:
41. If the Blood freezes in the chalice in winter time, the chalice should be wrapped in cloths that have been warmed. If this is not enough, it should be placed in hot water near the altar until the Blood thaws, but care should be taken that none of the water gets into the chalice. (1)
This directive would not have been needed if such a thing did not occur, which is a testament to how cold it could be in medieval churches and abbeys, which were generally made of solid stone with nothing for insulation. Besides the obvious danger of the sacred elements freezing, it was also possible that a priest’s hands would freeze or shake, making it difficult to turn the pages of the Gospel or—God forbid—drop the Blessed Sacrament. While small chapels or the private chapels of nobles might be equipped with fireplaces, such things were impractical for heating larger structures like cathedrals. Priests thus needed a creative way to deal with the rigors of celebrating winter liturgies in frigid churches.
A common solution to this problem was through the use of liturgical handwarmers. Liturgical andwarmers came in a variety of designs, but generally they were a ball of bronze, brass, or copper which could unscrew into two halves, revealing an iron cup. The iron cup would be filled with hot charcoal or embers from a fire and the ball closed again. This ingenious device allowed the priest to heat his hands without getting burned. Sometimes the outer sphere was elaborately decorated.
Here is a simple design from the late Renaissance:
Made of brass, the iron cup within this handwarmer is suspended from the outer sphere by a set of gimbals that kept the charcoal cup level and prevented the heated charcoal from ever touching the outside of the container directly. It is believed that this handwarmer was once coated in a thin layer of silver, which was likely rubbed away by frequent polishing over the years. (2) It is decorated with images of animals (such as the phoenix) that had allegorical meanings relating to Jesus Christ.
The following handwarmer comes from 11th century Ireland, when the Irish church was just beginning to be transformed by continental influences. Here we see an elaborate floral pattern reflecting the late Insular style of Irish craftsmanship:
Handwarmers were sometimes held by the priest throughout portions of the liturgy, like the homily, for example. They would also be set on the altar close by, so that if the priest’s hands got cold, he could simply rest them on the sphere momentarily to warm them up. Though there’s no direct evidence of it, we may surmise that servers may have also been tasked with holding these handwarmers nearby in case the priest needed them.
Because of the level of craftsmanship involved in decorating handwarmers, they were considered luxury items, likely found in great abbeys and cathedrals, who commissioned them specifically for their church (3). They were thus the propert of the church or abbey, not the individual celebrant.
Interstingly enough, Muslim craftsmen knew of the demand for handwarmers in Europe and produced them for export. Several liturgical handwarmers survive which had their origin in the metalshops of the Islamic world. This exquisitely wrought brass handwarmer gilded in silver was used in France during the end of the 1400s, but its origin was likely in Persia:
This handwarmer is unique in that it has been signed. Hidden within the intricate geometrical lacing are the words “decorated by Zayn-al-Din.” The word for decorated (naqsh) is Persian, implying that Zayn-al-Din was a Persian craftsman. The patterns on Zayn-al-Din’s handwarmer are meant to imitate popular European decorative motifs, but they also incorporate geometric patterns, medallions, and foliage common in Islamic art.
Liturgical handwarmers could also be decorated with allegorical images. For example, this handwarmer contains a personification of the seven liberal arts:
The subject matter suggests this handwarmer may have been used in a monastic or cathedral school, or in some educational setting.
Handwarmers could also be hung from hooks or suspended from poles or chains; they are occasionally mentioned as being suspended from chains over the altar. This beautiful handwarmer dates from the 13th century and is believed to have been used in the cathedral of Paris. Notice the hoop atop the sphere so that the handwarmer could be suspended:
The handwarmer is decorated with rich floral designs all the way around. How exciting to think that St. Thomas Aquinas may have conceivably taken this very ball in his frozen hands at Mass during Paris’s chilly winters!
The following sketch of a 12th century handwarmer appeared in a 19th century dictionary of French furnishings. Engraved by Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène Emmanuel from a now lost speciment observed in 1874, this illustration gives some sense of the level of artistry displayed in these remarkable objects:
French medievalist Dr. Lorris Chevalier observes that the handwarmers also served an allegorical purpose within the economy of Catholic worship:
Beyond their practical application, handwarmers held a symbolic significance within the context of medieval mentality. The warmth they provided mirrored the spiritual comfort sought during religious ceremonies. As worshippers clasped these small sources of heat, they not only shielded themselves from the physical cold but also embraced a symbolic warmth that resonated with the spiritual teachings and communal bonds fostered within the church. This small fire within the handwarmer, preserved in this globe, is the fire of faith that should animate the priest. It is also the fire of the Holy Spirit entering the world (the globe) through the Eucharist. (4)
By the end of the Renaissance, the use of handwarmers had spread beyond the clerical class, till by the 19th century every respectable gentleman and lady took handwarmers to church. These early liturgical handwarmers remind us of the ingenuity of medieval clerics, who blended necessity with symbology seamlessly in these wonderful little spheres.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like “Ostrich Eggs in the Liturgy“
(1) Pius V, De defectibus (1572), Available online at http://traditionalcatholic.net/
(2) “Hand Warmer” https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O92724/hand-warmer-unknown/
(3) Armitage, H. (ed.) 2002 The Hunt Museum. Essential Guide. Scala Publishers, London. p. 129
(4) Lorris Chevalier, “Warming the Soul: The Forgotten Role of Handwarmers in Medieval Worship,” Medievalists.net, Jan. 17, 2024
Phillip Campbell, “Liturgical Handwarmers,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, January 19, 2024. Available online at https://unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2024/01/liturgical-handwarmers