Sunday, May 25, 2008

Corpus Christi in the Vatican Stanze

Among the many images of the Eucharist that were produced by artists from the Middle Ages through the Baroque are two by Raphael.

Raphael Sanzio, Disputation on the Blessed Sacrament
Italian, 1510-1511
Vatican, Vatican Museums, Apostolic Palace, Stanza della Segnatura

The first is known as the “Disputà, or the Disputation on the Blessed Sacrament”. It is one of the frescoes that adorn the walls of the Vatican Palace’s Stanza della Segnatura. This room, formerly part of a suite of offices, is now part of the Vatican Museum. The contracts for the decoration of this room and three others were given to the young artist, Raphael Sanzio, shortly after his arrival in Rome. It is here that he began to form his mature style, a style that would become normative for so-called “classical art” for most of the next 500 years.

The “Disputà” is one of the two major paintings in the Stanza della Segnatura. The other is “The School of Athens”. They each occupy solid facing walls. The subjects can be considered as forming a pair. “The School of Athens” is the domain of natural philosophy and centers on the figures of Socrates and Aristotle. They are surrounded by famous pagan philosophers, including figures representing Diogenes, Ptolemy, and others.

By contrast, the “Disputà” may be thought of as a school of theology, especially of Eucharistic theology. The center of the image is not some human figure; it is a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament, placed on an altar. Also, the image is not entirely of this earth. It is divided horizontally, into a heavenly zone and an earthly zone. The Blessed Sacrament belongs to the earthly zone and is surrounded by theologians offering praise and acclaim. They include bishops, popes, monks, other clerics and laity (one of whom is clearly identifiable as the poet, Dante). In the heavenly zone, the glorious Risen Christ is seated directly above His Eucharistic Body. Above Him is God the Father and at His feet is the Holy Spirit. He is flanked by His mother, Mary, and St. John the Baptist and by Old and New Testament saints. Among them one can identify Moses, David, Sts. Peter and Paul and the Evangelists.

The gestures of all the figures in heaven and on earth form a grand crescendo of praise to Christ in His Eucharistic Presence.

In the adjoining “Stanza di Eliodoro” Raphael also created another Eucharistic image, the “Mass at Bolsena”. This is a time bridging image that shows Pope Julius II and his retinue as miraculous witnesses to a Eucharistic miracle which had taken place 200 years previously in the town of Bolsena, north of Rome. The image is painted on one of the side walls of the room (i.e., not the principal solid walls like the two pictures discussed above). The side walls are pierced by doorways, making a somewhat difficult shape for the composition.

Raphael Sanzio, The Mass at Bolsena
Italian, 1512
Vatican, Vatican Museums, Apostolic Palace, Stanza di Eliodoro
The center of the image is located above the doorway and is another altar, in this case seen from the side. To the left side of the altar are the people who participated in the miracle that took place in Bolsena in 1263. To the right are the contemporary (1512-1514) Pope Julius II, his retinue of clerics and guards (who may be members of the recently formed Swiss Guards).

The miracle of Bolsena is one of several similar Eucharistic miracles that were subjects of images from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Nearly all describe somewhat similar characters and events: a doubter of the doctrine of transubstantiation receives a sign of the Real Presence of Jesus in the consecrated Host. At Bolsena the doubter was the priest who was celebrating the Mass and the proof was that, at the consecration, the Host began to drip blood, which stained the corporal on the altar. This event led the Pope, Urban IV, to extend the feast of Corpus Christi, which was already being celebrated locally in France, to the universal church.