Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Miracle of the Mule – A Corpus Christi Reflection

Jean Bourdichon, Saint Anthony and the Mule
From Grandes heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), c. 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 187v

In this strange year of 2020 we have been confronted by many challenges and many worries.  There have also been some strange coincidences.  One of these occurs this weekend.  June 13 is the feast of Saint Anthony of Padua and also the eve of the great feast of Eucharist, Corpus Christi, which for most of the world falls on Sunday, June 14.1    The coincidence of the dates has reminded me that the two are closely related. 

Most Catholics think of Saint Anthony of Padua in somewhat sentimental terms.  He’s the saint who finds lost things, he’s the saint so often depicted holding the baby Jesus in his arms.  However, Anthony is not the somewhat colorless person I had always subconsciously assumed him to be, but a formidable intellectual and very effective preacher, in addition to apparently being a humble and holy individual. 

Unfortunately, not too many Catholics recognize this.  A few may be aware that he was an important early Franciscan theologian and preacher and a doctor of the Church.  Fewer still probably remember that he was once called the “Hammer of Heretics”. 

He was renowned in his lifetime as a preacher, especially a preacher to the heretics of the Mediterranean region in his own day, the Albigensians or Cathars and others.  Belief in the reality of Christ present in the consecrated bread and wine has often been challenged in church history.  Indeed, as John 6:60 points out even some of the disciples who heard the words from Christ’s own mouth refused to believe what he said.  So, it is hardly surprising that skeptics have always been around. 

As the story goes, St. Anthony was preaching in a town (variously called Toulouse or Bourges in France or Rimini on the Adriatic coast of Italy) where the Cathars denied that at the Consecration Christ Himself became present in the bread and wine.   One of these gentlemen challenged Anthony to a kind of contest.  If it was so evident that the bread became Christ’s body at the consecration, how about testing it to see whether a dumb animal would sense God’s presence in the Host and choose it over a good feed of hay and oats.  Anthony accepted.
The Limbourg Brothers, The Holy Eucharist (Viewing the Mass and the Miracle of the Mule)
From the Tres riches heures of  Jean de Berry
Chantilly, Musée Condé  
MS 65, fol. 129v

So, a donkey (or mule or horse) was denied food for three days to make sure that it would be really hungry on the day appointed for the test.  Then the beast was taken to the location for the test, usually said to be the town square.  Food was offered to the hungry animal.  At that point Anthony raised the Host and prayed “Creature of God, in His name, I command you to come here to adore Him, so that it will give truth to all, of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.” Surprising the unbelievers and the skeptics and even some of the faithful the animal ignored the food in order to approach Anthony and kneel before the Host, thus proving that even dumb animals believed in the transformation of bread into the Body of Christ.   The heretic who had challenged Anthony came to believe through this miracle. 2
Taddeo Crivelli_Miracle of the Mule
From the Gualenghi-d'Este Hours
Italian (Ferrara), c. 1469
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig IX 13, fol. 93v

The charm of this story, real or not, lies in the animals kneeling gesture.  As anyone who has watched an animal in the equine, bovine, ovine or camelid families recline knows, the gesture of kneeling with the front legs is quickly followed with a corresponding movement of the hind limbs.  To have an animal kneel and hold that position is rare, though not unheard of.  So, the image gets our attention and holds it.  It has been a favorite one for many artists through the years.
Jean Poyer, Saint Anthony and the Miracle of the Mule, Saint Anthony Preaching
From the Hours of Henry VIII
French (Tours), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H 8, fol. 186v

One of the first images that comes to mind is also one of the most famous.  This was an image by the great Quattrocento sculptor, Donatello, from the monumental altar of St. Anthony in Padua (where else!).  The altar has a series of bas reliefs of cast bronze, set into the marble altar structure.  The panel that had particularly struck me shows a composition with the background space of a very classical three arch arcade presented in beautifully laid out perspective.  In the front plane crowds of spectator figures, filling the two side arches, strain to see the action in the central arch.  To increase the sensation of depth, some figures are shown as if emerging from an internal passage within the arcade. 

Donatello, Miracle of the Mule of Rimini
Italian, c. 1446-1453
Padua, Basilica of Sant Antonio
In the central arch, in front of what appears to be an altar, are four figures rather incongruously brought together.  They are
  • *      St. Anthony dressed in vestments,
  • *      A man with a load of hay or straw over his shoulder,
  • *      Another man holding a bowl of some sort and
  • *      A donkey or mule. 

However, while the Donatello image is of major importance in the history of western art, some of the other images are more charming and also convey more seriously the real importance of the point of the image, the reality of Christ present in the Holy Eucharist.  Which is why the juxtaposition of the feasts of Saint Anthony and of Corpus Christi in this troubled year is so fortuitous.  No matter what the situation of the world, Jesus is present among us through the sacrament of his presence.

Master of Claude de France, Saint Anthony and the Mule
From the Prayer Book of Claude de France
French (Tours), c. 1515-1520
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 1166, fol. 41v
Domenico Beccafumi, Saint Anthony and the Mule
Italian, 1537
Paris, Musée du Louvre 
Anthony Van Dyck, Saint Anthony and the Mule
Flemish, 1627-1630
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts

It can also remind us that, even though we may not be able to participate in a live Mass at present, we still have more opportunities to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, via television or the internet, than our ancestors did. 
Joseph Heintz the Younger, Miracle of the Mule
Swiss, c.1650
Venice, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo
_Johann Jakob Zeiller, Miracle of the Mule
German, c. 1757-1764
Ottobeuren, Monastery Church of Saints Theodore and Alexander

Let us, therefore, kneel before him in the flesh if we can, or in our hearts if we cannot, with the same faith as shown by the humble donkey almost 800 years ago.

© M. Duffy, 2020

1.  In a few countries it still falls on its former date, the Thursday following Trinity Sunday, which this year was June 11. 
2.  Antony, C.M., Saint Anthony of Padua, the Miracle Worker (1195-1231), London, Longmans, 1911, pp. 38-41.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Holy Trinity -- The Throne of Grace

Taddeo Crivelli, The Throne of Grace
Single Leaf from a Manuscript
Italian (Ferrara), c. 1460-1470
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS 88r

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they all saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.

Then Jesus approached and said to them,
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."

Matthew 28:16-20
Gospel for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year B

The artistic expression of the Christian belief in a God who is One, but composed of Three distinct Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has taken many forms.  Nine years ago I surveyed some of them.  Last year I examined one of them, the Sorrow of God, in detail.  This year I would like to look at another, the Throne of Grace.
The Throne of Grace
German, c. 1446-1455
Eisleben, Parish Church of Saint Andrew
The title comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews in which we are told “It is not as if our high priest was incapable of feeling for us in our humiliations; he has been through every trial, fashioned as we are, only sinless. Let us come boldly, then, before the throne of grace, to meet with mercy, and win that grace which will help us in our needs.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)1   Therefore, the idea of the Throne of Grace is that God has compassion for our sufferings and failings, for the Second Person of the Trinity knows what it is to be a human, having been through all the trials of life himself, ultimately suffering death, and, through this compassionate understanding, will have mercy on us, if we accept it.
Laurent Girardin, The Throne of Grace
French, c. 1460
Cleveland, Museum of Art
The image called the Throne of Grace or the Mercy Seat (or, in German, the Gnadenstuhl) expresses this conjunction between the power and majesty of the Triune God and the suffering of God-Become-Man in Jesus, who is the Second of the Three Personed God.  In this image artists show us God the Father, usually (although not always) depicted as an older, crowned man, standing or sitting on a throne, holding in his outspread arms a crucifix on which hangs the body of Jesus, as at the Crucifixion.  The dove of the Holy Spirit is also commonly associated with this image, though very occasionally it is omitted.
Guido Reni, The Throne of Grace
Italian, c. 1580-1600
Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des arts graphique
The earliest images of this subject that I have as yet been able to find date from the early 13th century, the period by which time most of the important images of the Christian faith had been established, so this is one of the later developing images.
The Throne of Grace
From the Psalter-Hours of Ghiluys de Boisleux
French (Arras), c. 1246-1260
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 730, fol.  203r
Monks Praying to the Throne of Grace
From Bestiaire divin by Guillaume le Clerc
English, c. 1250-1275
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 14969, fol. 61
Altarpiece of the Throne of Grace with the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist
German, c. 1260-1270
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
The Throne of Grace
From the Egerton Psalter
English (East Anglia), c. 1270-1290
London, British Library
MS Egerton 1066, fol. 83
Penitence, Devotion and Contemplation
From La Sainte Abbaye by Pierre de Blois and Others
French (Paris), c. 1290
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 11, fol. 29

A sampling of these images is shown below.   They appear in all kinds of media:

Manuscript Illumination

The Throne of Grace
Cutting from a Gradual
English, 14th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Throne of Grace
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 299
Attributed to Jean le Noir, The Throne of Grace
From Epistolary of the Sainte-Chapelle
French (Paris), c. 1325-1375
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 34, fol. 116v
Michiel van der Borch, The Throne of Grace
From Rhimebible by Jacob van Maerlant
Dutch (Utrecht), 1332
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 B 21, fol. 118r

Wall Painting 

Nikolaus Kentner, The Throne of Grace
Austrian, 1452
Lienz, Castle Church, Trinity Chapel

Panel Painting

Jacopo di Cione and Workshop, The Throne of Grace
Central Panel San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece
Italian, c. 1370-1371
London, National Gallery
Agnolo Gaddi, The Throne of Grace
Italian, c. 1390-1396
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Taddeo di Bartolo
Italian, c. 1400-1420
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Stained Glass 

Glass Roundel, The Throne of Grace
South Netherlands, c. 1510-1520
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection


Damask Fabric, The Throne of Grace
Italian, c. 1470-1480
Cologne, Museum für Angewandte Kunst


The Throne of Grace
German, c. 1300-1310
Fritzlar, Formr Monastery and Cathedral of Saint Peter

The Throne of Grace
Spanish, 14th Century
Washington, National Gallery of Art
The Throne of Grace
English, 15th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
The Throne of Grace
English or French, 15th Century
Paris, Musée de Cluny, Musée national du Moyen Age

The Throne of Grace
Flemish, c. 1431
Brussels, Church of Our Lady, Trinity Chapel

Goldsmith’s Work 

Morse (Clasp for a liturgical vestment, the cope) with the Throne of Grace
French, 15th Century Enamel in 19th Century Setting
Washington, National Gallery of Art
Hans Reinhart the Elder, Trinity Medal
German, 1544
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

The Simple Approach

Most present the simplest form of the subject, with only the figures of the Trinity included.  They are meant to be objects of devotion, reminders to the faithful of the price God was willing to pay to bridge the gap brought about by original sin.  Often, when they appear in the pages of Books of Hours or the breviaries of the clergy, they accompany the opening words of the Psalm which begins the evening prayer of Sundays “Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis, donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum.” (“The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand, while I make your enemies your footstool.” Psalm 110:1)
The Throne of Grace
Cutting from an Antiphonary
Czech (Prague), c. 1410
Cleveland, Museum of Art
The Throne of Grace
Austrian, 1410
London, National Gallery
The Throne of Grace
Flemish, c. 1453-1467
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kaiserliche Schatzkammer
This plaque includes text which paraphrases the words of John 4:23 from the diaglogue of Jesus with the Samaritan woman "veri adoratores adorabunt Patrem in spiritu et veritate" ("true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth").
Master of the Beaussant Altarpiece, The Throne of Grace
From a Fragment of the Justinian Code
French, c. 1480-1490
Paris, Musée du Louvre
MS RF 54637r
Masters of the Dark Eyes, The Throne of Grace
From a Book of Hours
Dutch, c. 1490
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 G 9. fol. 80v

  Variations on the Simple

Some images, while remaining essentially simple, offer some variation, such as placing the Cross with the figure of Christ to the side of the Father instead of directly in front.

Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, The Throne of Grace with the Four Evangelists
From La Bible historiale complétée

 by Guiard des Moulins
French, 1357
London, British Library
MS Royal 17 E VIII, fol. 1
Bedford Master, The Throne of Grace
From The Bedford Hours
French (Paris), c. 1410-1430
London, British Library
MS Additional 18850, fol. 204v
Related to the Master of the Munich Golden Legend, The Throne of Grace
English (Oxford), c. 1440
London, British Library
MS Sloane 2321, fol. 119v
Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Throne of Grace
German, c. 1515-1518
Bremen, Kunsthalle

The Throne of Grace Image with Other Figures

Some of these images, primarily those intended as more public works to be viewed by many people, such as altarpieces, include other figures as well.  The accompanying figures may be those that were earthly witnesses to the Crucifixion, such as the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Evangelist, or they may be prophets who foretold the advent of Jesus and his sacrifice, or it may be the figures and symbols of the four evangelists, or they may be visionary saints, who were believed to have been rewarded for their faith by a vision of the Trinity as the Throne of Grace, like St. Jerome.
The Throne of Grace with the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist
German, c. 1320-1330
Erfurt, Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Throne of Grace
Italian, c. 1350-1400
Palermo, Galleria Regionale della Sicilia
Bartolo di Fredi, Altarpiece of the Trinity (The Throne of Grace with the Virgin Mary, Saints John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene)
Italian, c. 1400
Chambery, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Bedford Master and Master of the Cité  des Dames
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1420
London, British Library
MS Additional 18857, fol. 148 
Andrea del Castagno, Holy Trinity with Saint Jerome and Two Female Saints
Italian, c. 1453
Florence, Church of Santissima Annunziata
Pesellino, Santa Trinità  Altarpiece
Italian, c. 1455-1460
London, National Gallery
Sandro Botticelli, Pala della Convertite (The Throne of Grace with Saints Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist)
Italian, c. 1491-1493
London, Courtauld Gallery
Quentin Massys, The Throne of Grace with the Madonna and Child
Dutch, c. 1518
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek

Adoration of the Throne of Grace 

Still other examples represent the Trinity being adored by other figures, sometimes even identifiable ones.  Unlike the images where the figures simply accompany the Trinity, in these pictures the viewers are engaged primarily in adoration, on their knees, or at least in attitudes of prayer.
DuBois Master, Adoration of the Trinity
_From the DuBois Hours
English (London), c. 1320-1335
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 700, fol. 103r
Master of 1328, The Trinity Adored by The Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist, the Eleven Apostles and Saint Paul, Angels, a Pope and a King
From the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX
Italian (Bologna), c. 1330-1335
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 716, fol. 2r

Master of the Breviary of Senlis at Montpellier, The Trinity Adored by Donors and Their Children
From Le Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun
French (Paris), c. 1350-1360
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 B29, fol. 124r
Simone dei Crocefissi, Throne of Grace Adored by Four Saints
Italian, 1360s
Vienna, Akademie der bilbdenden Kuenste
The Throne of Grace Adored by Several Saints (Upper level:  Virgin Mary, Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist;
Lower level: Saints Catherine of Alexandria, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene)
From De Propretatibus rerum by Barthelemy l'Anglais
French (Paris), c. 1400-1425
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 22531, fol. 24
The Limbourg Brothers, Patriarchs and Prophets Adoring the Throne of Grace
From Tres belles heures de Notre-Dame de Jean de Berry
French, c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3093, fol. 225

The Dunois Master, Trinity of the Canons
French, c. 1430
Paris, Ecole nationale superieure des Beaux-Arts

Master of Catherine of Cleves, Holy Trinity Adored by Rulers of the Earth
From Hours of Catherine of Cleves
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1435-1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M917-945, fol. 90r
Louis of Savoy Adoring the Holy Trinity
From the Hours of Louis of Savoy
French (Savoy), c. 1445-1460
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9473, fol. 141
Andrea della Robbia,  The Trinity Altarpiece
Italian, c. 1485-1486
Arezzo, Cathedral
Giovanni Mansueti, The Throne of Grace Adored by Saints (James the Greater, The Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, Peter and Mary Magdalene) and  Two Donors
Italian, c. 1492
London, National Gallery
Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of Trinity, the Landauer Altarpiece
German, 1511
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

From this category comes one of the best known of all pictures from the Quattrocento, the Trinity by Masaccio, from the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.  Here the two donors, a husband and wife, join the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist in adoring the Trinity.  Because of Masaccio’s early use of scientific perspective to create the illusion of a vaulted space in which the Trinity stand this picture is included in most art history survey classes and especially in those that cover the Renaissance period.
Masaccio, The Holy Trinity
Italian, c. 1425-1428
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella

Disputations and Triumphs

Sometimes we are offered a reflection of the theological discussions that engaged the Church in the first few centuries while the understanding of Trinitarian doctrine, though implicit from the beginning, was explicated with the development of the Nicene creed.  So, we may see Saint Augustine engaged in disputations with other philosophers or ruminating on salvation. 
Virgil Master, St. Augustine Contemplating the Two Cities
From City of God by St. Augustine of Hippo
French (Paris), c. 1410-1412
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 A 12, fol. 2r
St. Augustine Disputing with Philosophers
From City of God by St. Augustine of Hippo
French, c. 1464-1471
The Hague, Meermano
MS RMMW 10 D 33, fol. 15r
The Triumph of Divinity
From Trionfi by Petrarch
French, c. 1500-1525
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 12423, fol. 79v

The image of the Throne of Grace and the related image of the Sorrow of God remind us that God is not some remote “force” that is totally other and apart from lived human experience but has a profound understanding of human life, its trials, its failures, its feelings of abandonment but also of its joys and its love.  Through the Incarnation God has inserted a part of himself into the world in a concrete way to understand the inner workings of the creature made in his/her image and likeness.  And, through the Eucharist and the Church, he remains with us.  Understanding us so well he always offers us mercy, the response to that offer is ours to accept or reject.

© M. Duffy, 2020

1.  For this quotation I used the translation of the Vulgate by Monsignor Ronald Knox.  The currently used New American Bible translation expresses the idea of the writer of Romans in a very clumsy manner which makes it virtually incoherent.  Knox, Ronald.  The Holy Bible, A Translation from the Latin Vulgate in the Light of the Hebrew and Greek Originals, New York, Sheed and Ward, 1954.

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Unless otherwise noted, Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Quotations in Latin are taken from the Latin Vulgate of Saint Jerome, which is available online at: a), b) and c)