The Blessed Sacrament was always reserved in a medieval church, for two reasons. Firstly so that it was always available to be taken to the deathbed of the faithful so that they could be ‘houselled’ i.e. receive communion. Secondly, as the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament developed as the Middle Ages progressed, it was reserved for devotional reasons.
The hanging pyx is a suspended form of tabernacle, or place of reservation in other words, for the Blessed Sacrament. Archdale King in Eucharistic Reservation in the Western Church suggests that it was a very general (though not universal) form of Eucharistic reservation through England and Scotland during the middle ages – and later in France.
Of its characteristics, ornamentation and function, King has this to say:
The usual method for fixing the pyx was for a crane or pulley to be so arranged over the altar as to permit of the ready raising or lowering of the pyx, which was suspended by a cord or chain attached to a ring on its top. Above the pyx was hung the canopy, a circular tent-like construction formed of some costly fabric, which was generally attached to a ring and ornamental crown of metal. The pyx itself was veiled in a pyx cloth, which often had the form of a square napkin, with a hole in the middle, through which the suspending cord passed, and weighted tassles at the four corners which kept it down close by the pyx.
One extant mediaeval example of the pyx cloth that covered the pyx is to be found, coming from the Hessett Church in Suffolk, England:
As well, above the pyx, King mentions that a circular tent-like canopy was also suspended. This construction can be seen in various mediaeval manuscripts. Here is an example:
Peter F. Anson’s book, Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing shows a number of examples of some different forms of hanging pyxes.
Here are photographic examples of three of the styles illustrated above by Anson:
The Gothic revival architect Sir Ninian Comper was the first to reintroduce the hanging pyx into Anglican churches. The image above is of a hanging pyx with a triple crown canopy by Comper in the Grosvenor Chapel in London. The earliest hanging pyx Comper installed was in the chapel of the clergy house at St. Matthew’s, Westminster, but unfortunately it has long gone.
The dove pyx which Archdale King suggests were most commonly found in France, but not so much England or Scotland
Sometimes a more substantial canopy was provided for the pyx, which was suspended from a vast tester (or suspended decorative ceiling) that covered the high altar. More contemporary examples of such a tester are to be seen in St. Wilfrid’s Church in Cantley, Doncaster (a work of Comper)
or recently in Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral
Here is a hanging pyx from the 1920s by Randall Blacking in High Wycombe church:
The hanging pyx at Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire is a much more recent addition, added in 1994 and designed by Stuart Birdsall.
The unusual form of an openwork canopy surrounding the pyx and cloth is based on a thirteenth century example in Wells Cathedral, although there is some debate as to whether the Wells example (below) was a pyx canopy at all.
P.S. I also refer to Fr. Anthony Chadwick’s post on the hanging pyx which he uses in his chapel in France.