The Christian belief in the Eucharist stands as a universal expression of faith in a transcendent value that exists beyond human effort, to which we can nevertheless strive through faith. It would be hard to find anything in the history of civilization quite like this mystical belief that bound Christians together in communion for centuries, the main emblem of their belief in the person of Christ.
Perusing early literature about the Eucharist, one theme that stands out is that of the sacrament as a sign or glimpse of a fuller reality. The church father St. Gaudentius wrote that “what [Christ] left on that night when he was handed over to be crucified was given to us as a pledge of his presence.” St. Augustine continued this theme, asserting of the Eucharist, “its physical appearance is seen; its spiritual significance is understood.” For St. Irenaeus, the Eucharist was a presage of the Resurrection: God will transform our corruptible bodies into incorruptible, just as he transforms ordinary bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. St. Ambrose evoked “yearning” as the state of mind in which we approach the Eucharist.
Yearning and longing imply the presence of the imagination. A visible and tactile sign, the Eucharist invites looking and tasting, as well as imagining. The mystery Eucharist invites us to penetrate is beyond the immediately visible and tangible to the inner reality. What appears to be bread and wine is the bodily presence of Jesus, who comes to us under the appearance of things most familiar to us.
Thus in the light of the Eucharist, Christians came to see that religion is not merely data; faith and imagination are required. To see the deepest truths, we must pass beyond the portal of our accustomed ways of thinking, and even take a leap into the absurd, or what appears humanly absurd. The Eucharist is a rebuke to man’s greatest delusion—that he has everything within his rational grasp.
It was perhaps only natural that the Eucharist became a stimulus to artistic expression. One could date this from the late Middle Ages, when the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted as the result of the lobbying of a lone woman, St. Juliana of Liège. The feast started as a local celebration in Juliana’s diocese in Belgium, and after several years the pope extended the feast to the entire Christian world. St. Thomas Aquinas became the “poet of the Eucharist” by writing the Office and hymn texts for the feast. His contributions (O Salutaris Hostia, Pange Linga, Adoro Te Devote) remain vital seven centuries later, expressing an almost romantic sense of the reality hidden behind the visual aspect of the Eucharist.
Aquinas’ verses were another step in the adornment of the Eucharist through the artistic imagination. Another encouragement came from developments in the liturgy. Since the faithful of the Middle Ages took communion less frequently than is customary today, the visual presence of the Eucharist took on a great importance. The ritual of the Mass evolved to make the consecration a theatrical moment, with the priest raising the Host on high for all the people to see, accompanied by the ringing of bells. The Eucharist became a sort of epiphany of God, and seeing it was a kind of communion in itself.
An eyewitness account of the inaugural Mass of the Duomo of Florence in 1436—for which the great composer Dufay provided the music—has come down to us, with special note of the magic of the moment of consecration:
The senses of all began to be uplifted. . . . But at the elevation of the Most Sacred Host the whole space of the temple was filled with such choruses of harmony, and such a concert of divers instruments, that it seemed (not without reason) as though the symphonies and songs of the angels and of divine paradise had been sent forth from Heaven to whisper in our ears an unbelievable celestial sweetness. Wherefore in that moment I was so possessed by ecstasy that I seemed to enjoy the life of the blessed here on earth; whether it happened so to others present I know not, but concerning myself I can bear witness.
With the Renaissance, artists found new opportunities to conceive of the Eucharist in imaginative terms. There was surely no grander example of this than Raphael’s The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament—one of a series of frescoes the young artist created for the papal apartments in the Vatican between 1509 and 1510.
The Eucharist, depicted inside its monstrance and placed at the dead center of the composition, quite literally joins heaven and earth. In the heavenly half of the composition Raphael has depicted Christ with several saints of the Old and New Testaments. On earth we see popes, philosophers, and Dante Alighieri, some poring over books seeking to understand the mystery of the sacrament. The figure to the right of the Eucharist points upward toward Jesus in heaven, making explicit the link between the Eucharist and the divine presence.
The Disputation is a companion piece to another fresco occupying an adjoining room, The School of Athens. Anyone who frequents The Imaginative Conservative has probably seen this picture showing a gathering of the philosophers of antiquity (Leonardo da Vinci stands in for Plato) pondering and discussing the nature of truth in its various forms.
Both the School of Athens and the Disputation are about the search for truth. In the first, Raphael has shown the striving of the classical world for knowledge of the deepest questions. In the second, he has shown the questions’ definitive answer. Plato in School of Athens points upward, suggesting his theory of the Divine Forms; standing beside him, Aristotle points to the earth, symbolizing his more empirical approach to truth. Taken as a pair, the two pictures represent reason and revelation, or philosophy and theology, or nature and grace—frame it how you like.
But in the Disputation Raphael synthesizes the approaches of Plato and Aristotle. The Eucharist is a physical, empirical thing; yet it also points beyond itself to the eternal Divinity. By making it the sequel to his School of Athens, Raphael shows Christian thought to be in continuity with the high intellectual achievements of the past.
Raphael depicts the Eucharist above all as food for the intellect—a dimension which certainly included the doctrine of transubstantiation, the technical way to describe Jesus’ presence in the sacrament. Yet the Eucharist is something over which we can never have full intellectual mastery. It is still a mystery, pointing beyond what the senses immediately perceive. This is made clear by the blue-robed figure standing to the right of the sacrament who points upward toward the heavenly Christ.
Thus Raphael shows that the keynote of the Eucharist is longing—longing for something beyond our grasp but glimpsed provisionally. The Eucharist teaches self-sufficient man his essential helplessness and his need to be fed. More than a mathematical formula, it is a motive for faith and imagination.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Disputation of Holy Sacrament” (1509/10) by Raphael (1483-1520), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.