Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the English designer and architect responsible for the success of the Gothic Revival style, made this encaustic plate in 1849 at the height of his career. His collaboration with the ceramics manufacturer Herbert Minton—with whom he produced this plate, as well as the encaustic floor-tiles for the Palace of Westminster—began in 1840.
This plate belongs to a set featuring mottoes in Gothic script. The words ‘waste not, want not’ are here paired with a design of radiating ears of wheat, indicating its function as a bread plate.
In a literal sense the saying reflects the text of Exodus: the Israelites are encouraged to consume all their daily rations of manna and, however much or little they gather, they do not want for more (Exodus 16:20–21). The divine rituals and instructions accompanying the gathering of the manna convey the message that obedient respect will be rewarded with fulfilment, a message that is reflected in the motto. This fulfilment was not the result of the Israelites’ hard work of gathering but, like the feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14:13–21; Mark 6:31–44; Luke 9:12–17; John 6:1–14), it was a miraculous sustenance.
Such themes of obedience, ritual, and miracle have clear eucharistic connotations too. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Pugin’s writings stressed the primacy of Gothic (or rather pre-Reformation) design as the one ‘true’ spiritual style. The use of Gothic script for the message on this plate thus emphasizes the sanctity of bread. The language of Victorian moral instruction has an allusion to Christ and the Eucharist couched within it, just as, for Christians, such allusions are figured in the episode of the manna.
The message of the plate works regardless of whether, like Pugin, one regards physical bread as transubstantiated in the Mass, or as only symbolic of Christ’s body. In its apparently simple design and message, it expresses the convergence of the most humble and commonplace foodstuff with the divine; the sustainer of mortal life with the provider of eternal life.
16 They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2And the whole congregation of the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3and said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your murmurings against the Lord. For what are we, that you murmur against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you in the evening flesh to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the Lord has heard your murmurings which you murmur against him—what are we? Your murmurings are not against us but against the Lord.”
9 And Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, ‘Come near before the Lord, for he has heard your murmurings.’ ” 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11And the Lord said to Moses, 12“I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning dew lay round about the camp. 14And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground. 15When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat. 16This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, every man of you, as much as he can eat; you shall take an omer apiece, according to the number of the persons whom each of you has in his tent.’ ” 17And the people of Israel did so; they gathered, some more, some less. 18But when they measured it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat. 19And Moses said to them, “Let no man leave any of it till the morning.” 20But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and became foul; and Moses was angry with them. 21Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.
22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers apiece; and when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay by to be kept till the morning.’ ” 24So they laid it by till the morning, as Moses bade them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. 25Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. 26Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.” 27On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. 28And the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? 29See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days; remain every man of you in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” 30So the people rested on the seventh day.
31 Now the house of Israel called its name manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. 32And Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ ” 33And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before the Lord, to be kept throughout your generations.” 34As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the testimony, to be kept. 35And the people of Israel ate the manna forty years, till they came to a habitable land; they ate the manna, till they came to the border of the land of Canaan. 36(An omer is the tenth part of an ephah.)