Sunday, June 26, 2011

Corpus Christi – Last Supper vs. Institution of the Eucharist

Anonymous, Last Supper/Institution of the Eucharist
French (possibly Corbie), ca. 1175
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 44, fol. 6v
(This medieval manuscript illumination shows characteristics of both image types.  The 
Apostles are grouped as for a Last Supper scene, but Christ appears as if the priest at 
Mass at the point just before Communion.)

The feast known as Corpus Christi or the Body and Blood of Christ was established as a feast of the universal Church in 1264. The focus of the feast is the Body and Blood of Christ. The mystery of the Eucharist stands at the heart of the Church and there are several different ways in which that mystery has been portrayed in images throughout history.

Eucharistic iconography is a very complex subject, but I will only look at one of the images today. This is the distinction between images of the Last Supper and those of the Institution of the Eucharist. At first glance this may seem confusing. After all, aren’t they the same thing? Well, yes and no. Although the events depicted are essentially the same, the manner in which they are depicted is different.

Both types of painting focus on the events in the Upper Room on the night before Jesus died.
As the Gospel of Matthew (and the other Synoptic Gospels) tell us:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, "Take and eat; this is my body."
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you,
For this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.
(Matthew 26:26-28)

Both types of images are set in the Upper Room, both usually feature a table. Apart from that they are very different in the figural composition and narrative content.

Giotto, Last Supper
Italian, 1304
Padua, Arena Chapel

Images of the Last Supper present Jesus and the Apostles seated around or on one side of a table and engaged in a meal. Classic examples are the well-known images by Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci. Jesus may be seen to be blessing the bread or not. It is the moment just before or just as Jesus pronounces the words given in the Gospels.

Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper
Italain, 1498
Milan, S. Maria della Grazie

However, images of the Institution of the Eucharist are different.  In many of these images the distinction from a Last Supper scene is very subtle. The figures are shown seated at the table, but the atmosphere is less that of a meal than of a Mass. Jesus may hold a Host, just as a priest does during Mass, He may even make gestures like those made by the priest. This is an image of the Last Supper as the First Mass.
Fra Angelico and Assistants, Institution of the Eucharist
Italian, 1441-1442
Florence, Museo di San Marco

In some of them, neither Jesus nor the Apostles are seated. Jesus is shown standing and the Apostles are generally kneeling. It is the moment after the words of the Scriptures have been said. It is, in effect, an image of the Last Supper as the First Holy Communion.

Jean Colombe, Institution of the Eucharist
from Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry
Flemish, 1485
Chantilly, Musee Conde
MS DB 65, fol. 189v

There are images of the Institution of the Eucharist that date from well before the Reformation (which began in 1515), such as the image at the top of the page, which dates from the late twelfth century.  This predates even the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi.

Among these images is a page from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc of Berry, which shows Christ distributing Communion in the manner of a priest to the faithful at Mass.  In the small picture that forms the illuminated capital letter is an image of Christ holding the chalice and elevating the Host.

Another is a painting by the Flemish artist identified as Just van Ghent, but apparently painted in Italy.

Joos van Ghent, Institution of the Eucharist
Flemish, 1473-1475
Urbino, Galeria Nazionale delle Marche

Ercole de'Roberti, Insitution of the Eucharist
Italian, 1490s
London, National Gallery 

And there is also an example by Ercole de Roberti, in a tabernacle door probably from Ferrara in the 1490s

All of these pictures are dated to the last quarter of the 15th century (1475-1500).

However, there are many more dating from after 1515, indeed from the period known as the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Reform. This is the period that includes the Council of Trent, which ran in three sessions from 1545-1563, and the period of Catholic recovery that followed it. It covers roughly the second half of the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century.

That there should be many images of the Institution of the Eucharist in the Counter-Reformation period is not surprising. One of the principal Reformation attacks on Catholicism was on Transubstantiation, the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ that happens during the Consecration of Mass. Trent reaffirmed the traditional belief in Transubstantiation and in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist following the Consecration.

After Trent, artists were encouraged through commissions and instructions to paint pictures that would reaffirm and transmit Catholic teachings visually. And among the artists who responded with appropriate images were:

In an altarpiece from the Aldobrandini Chapel in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome by Federico Barocci.
Federico Barocci, Insitution of the Eucharist
Italian, 1608
Rome, Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva

A painting by Nicolas Poussin, in one of his series of paintings of the Seven Sacraments.
Poussin, Institution of the Eucharist
French, 1645
Paris, Musee du Louvre 

And by James Tissot for his Biblical illustrations at the end of the 19th century.

James Tissot, Institution of the Eucharist
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum 
These images show the profound respect for the sacramental Species due to these Elements (Bread and Wine) when transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Although images of the Last Supper continued to be produced both in Catholic and in Protestant countries after the Reformation, the Insitution of the Eucharist images are not found in the Protestant countries. 

© M. Duffy, 2011

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