Visit to the ceramic department, Via Portuense

The first of our visits to the various workshops was to the ceramic department. Many people think that working in the ceramic department involves merely sculpting bits of clay, sticking it in the 'oven' and then painting the cooked plaques, however, after the explanation given by our highly competent and gifted Sr. M. Flavianna, we soon realised that each piece of pottery has a whole process behind it.

The word ceramic comes from the Greek word "κεραμικός" (keramikos),  "of pottery" or "for pottery", from "κέραμος" (keramos), "potter's clay, tile, pottery" which is said to derive from the Indo-European word *cheros (unattested), meaning heat . Nowadays the term 'ceramic' indicates the clay after it has been cooked at a very high temperature. Sometimes two or more different kinds of clay are mixed together, adding other mineral substances which gives the different types of ceramic. These materials which are added to a clay body can change and strengthen it. Altering a clay body in this way reduces the shrinkage rate and lessens the degree of stress during drying and firing. Each clay has its own distinct make up, resulting in a different handling quality, colour, temperature range and plasticity or workability. What one sees in the picture on the left is terracotta, i.e, clay which is cooked once (often known as biscuit clay because of its colour) which still has to be varnished.

There are many forming techniques to make ceramics, but one example is slipcasting. This is where liquid clay is poured into a plaster mould. The water in the slip is drawn out of the slip, leaving an inside layer of solid clay. When this is thick enough, the excess slip can be removed from the mould. When dry, the solid clay can then also be removed. The slip used in slip casting is often liquified with a substance that reduces the need for additional water to soften the slip; this prevents excessive shrinkage which occurs when a piece containing a lot of water dries. This kind of technique is used for making lamps, incense burners and larger hollowed pieces. 

Generally, the sisters gather up all the various orders from the Liturgical Centres, in particular in Italy but also abroad, before beginning mass production of any singular piece. The moulds are attached to the press and the operation begins! After the pieces are detached, it is imperative to either work on them immediately or else moisten them and wrap them well. The pieces are finished by hand, smoothing the rough edges, making the holes or openings where needed.  Following this, they are fired in the kiln at a temperature between 1000 and 1280° C.  Many of the biblical plaques, crosses, holy water fonts, etc are then glazed with a transparent varnish which holds and seals any eventual coloured varnishes or applied crystalines. Once more, the pieces are put in the kiln for the firing process at a temperature of 900-950° or for coloured pieces 1000- 1280°. The heat within a kiln alters the nature of clay and glaze materials both chemically and physically causing them to become hard and permanent. There are many different methods and techniques associated with the firing stage. It is another stage which evolves with experimentation and is prone to constant improvement and tweaking. Kilns can be electric, gas or wood fired.  In our ceramic department we have both a gas and electric kiln which reach temperatures of 1800 degrees!  Some pieces are commissioned and carried out on the potter's wheel, truly a marvel to watch a potter at work! This image is very fitting for us as in true biblical style, now more than ever, we are clay in the hands of God the Potter who continues to form us as his true and authentic disciples.

During the work hours of the ceramic departure, an atmosphere of prayer, recollection and silence is cultivated. As the sisters work, many prayer intentions are attached to the pieces which they are working on, for the family that will bring this symbol of faith into their home, for the priest that may use this chalice and paten, for the parish assembly that they may be reminded of Christ, Light of the world when they see the ceramics lamps during times of liturgical prayer. Special prayers of offering are made each time the kiln is turned on as this is the most delicate part of the process. The various juniors were very anxious to try and glaze some of the pieces so Sr. Flavianna was very willing to let them have a go and even found some possible 'volunteers' to come and work there! Who knows!!!
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