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Silent tears

13 March 2015

I CANNOT remember having shed tears so profusely that they could be kept in a bottle, but, apparently, the Victorians did - and they waited until they had evaporated as an end to their mourning. But it would need a nation's weeping to fill up the thousand tear-bottles of this collection currently on exhibition in Chichester Cathedral.

They are all distinctly individual, made by an artist and sculptor based in East Sussex, Deborah Tompsett. The idea developed while she contemplated the box for prayer-requests in her church. She wondered "what sort of vessel could contain our most private prayers", and then went on to research the idea, discovering the ancient tradition of tear bottles. Besides the Victorians' giving their funereal gloss to them, there is a mention in the Bible of the Greeks' using them; and pilgrims used to carry tear-shaped vessels on their long journeys.

Each of Ms Tompsett's bottles has been made on a traditional potter's wheel from a fist-sized lump of clay, chosen deliberately because the fist is the same size as a human heart. "The idea that our hearts and fists are the same size determines the size of the bottles," she says. "Each bottle contains our heartfelt prayers, and so it is made from a fist-size lump of clay: the largest, from that of a large adult, down to the tiny heart of a baby."

Because each is unique, they are made from various colours and textures of clay, smoke-fired randomly in a metal dustbin, surrounded with sawdust and a variety of vegetation, including rhubarb. It means that they come in many sizes and colours, and have intriguing surface marks.

"We have placed some 600 bottles at the cathedral shrine," a spokeswoman, Ruth Poyner, says, "which is a very fitting location, as every year we receive thousands of prayer requests at the shrine, and every one of these requests is prayed for by the cathedral clergy and community.

"About 300 bottles are also placed in the chapel of St Mary Magdalene, in front of the cathedral's striking painting by Graham Sutherland."

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