Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Illuminating Eucharistic Faith at the Morgan Library

View of the exhibition at the Morgan Library
New York

(Please note that this essay was originally written in conjunction with a temporary exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, which ran from May to September in 2013.)*

One of the summer exhibitions that recently opened at the Morgan Library in mid-town Manhattan is focused on a subject that is surprisingly relevant to the upcoming feast of Corpus Christi (Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ). This feast is celebrated in some countries on its traditonal day, which is this coming Thursday, May 30th.  In the United States it will be celebrated next Sunday, June 2nd. The title of the exhibition is “Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art” and the results are impressive in several ways.

The exhibition is presented in a respectful and serious way, with wall cards and labeling providing orthodox explanations of the meaning of the Eucharist, including some words, such as transubstantiation, that are seldom heard in today’s culture. The more than sixty-five items in the show, drawn almost entirely from the Morgan’s own collections, offer views of many aspects of the iconography of the Eucharist, and go well beyond images of the Last Supper. It is organized around six themes: The Institution of the Eucharist; The Introduction of the Elevation; The Eucharist and the Old Testament; Domestic Devotion to the Eucharist; The Feast of Corpus Christi and Eucharistic Miracles. I will be discussing several of these themes in the next few days.

Last Supper
From Hours of Don Alfonso of Castile
Spanish (perhaps Burgos or Segovia)
New York, Morgan Library
MS M.854, fol. 202v
The first section, The Institution of the Eucharist, presents samples of what is probably the most immediately recognizable image of the Eucharist for the majority of people, the Last Supper. The exhibition points out that even in supposedly simple medieval images of the Last Supper there are references to the primary experience of Eucharist for most of us, which is the Mass. For example, in the very first image chosen for the show, from a 15th-century Spanish manuscript, we see the Apostles seated around a circular table, draped in white. Christ holds the familiar circular white host in one hand as he blesses it with the other. The round white host is clearly different from the other breads on the table, which are a light brown color, and the cup of wine is clearly modeled on the chalice used at Mass.

Last Supper
From Miniatures of the Life of Christ
French (perhaps Corbie), ca. 1175
New York, Morgan Library
MS M44, fol. 60v

References to the actions of the priest at Mass are also evident in an older manuscript, painted in France, probably at the abbey of Corbie in the late 12th century. Here Christ stands, holding up the host and the chalice, just as the priest does during the elevations of the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass.
n another image, one from a large choir book, a Gradual, painted by Silvestro dei Gherarducci in late 14th-century Florence we also see the effects of an unworthy reception of Christ’s Body and Blood. Judas, still with the other Apostles, sits opposite Jesus at the circular table as Christ makes a sign of blessing. However, unlike the other Apostles the halo around Judas’ head reveals him to be the betrayer. It has turned black and is covered with scorpions. This relates to the images of Judas composed by Giotto at the beginning of the century. There Judas wears a halo that is made of dark smoke. Both darkened haloes depict the darkness of the soul that resists the grace of God.

Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Last Supper
Single leaf cutting from Gradual Choir Book
Italian (Florence) 1392-1399
New York, Morgan Library
MS M653.4

Christ in Gethsemene 
From Book of Hours
Belgian, 1400-1415
New York, Morgan Library
MS M259, fol. 12v
This section of the exhibition also includes images that are the direct ancestors of our most commonly recognized “shorthand” image for the Eucharist. That is the Host elevated above the Chalice. This image appears first in images of the Agony in the Garden, where Jesus prays that He will be spared the bitter cup of the Passion. In these images the “cup” has been interpreted in the light of the Eucharistic celebration, as the Chalice of the Precious Blood and the consecrated Host.

Christ in Gethsemene 
From Beauchamp Hours
English (perhaps London), 1420-1445
New York, Morgan Library
MS M893, fol. 17r

The preciousness of the Precious Blood is emphasized in other images from the show. In one image the blood of Christ, shed on the cross, flows down to the skull of Adam, whom legend said was buried on Calvary (see my article about the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca at Arezzo for this). This image symbolizes the redemption from Original Sin that was the effect of Christ’s Passion.

The Blood of Christ Cleanses the Skull of Adam
From a Missal
Italian (Ferrara), 1463
New York, Morgan Library
MS M518, fol. 128v
Similarly, in several images angels hold up vessels in which to catch the Blood flowing from Christ’s wounded hands and side, just as angels did this in Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua at the beginning of the 14th century.
Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, Crucifixion
From a Missal
Italian (Perugia), 1472-1499
New York, Morgan Library
MS M472, fol. 131v
The connection between Calvary and the Mass is made explicit in a luxury manuscript commissioned by Cardinal Domenico Della Revere, a member of the clan that included Popes Sixtus IV, for whom the Sistine Chapel is named, and Julius II, the patron of Michelangelo in that same chapel. In this beautiful book (now seriously damaged in parts), illuminated by an artist known as the Master of the Della Rovere Missals (i.e., the actual identity of the artist is currently uncertain) an image of the Crucifixion appears on the left hand page, juxtaposed by an image of the elevation of the Host at Mass in a contemporary chapel setting on the right hand page. Kneeling devoutly as the priest elevates the Host is the Pope and his entourage.
Master of the Della Rovere Missals, Crucifixion 
From a Missal (left hand page)
Italian (Rome), ca. 1483
New York, Morgan Library
MS M306, fol. 118v

Master of the Della Rovere Missals, Elevation at a Mass with the Pope in attendance
From a Missal (right hand page)
Italian (Rome), ca. 1483
New York, Morgan Library
MS M306, fol. 118r
Two other images, both favorites of mine, are introduced at the end of this section. One is the image of the Man of Sorrows.  This subject, which presents the viewer with the image of Christ bearing the wounds of His sacrifice, has a long association with the Eucharist.  In nothern Italy in particular, it was a frequent subject used in the decoration of tabernacles, structures which hose the reserved consecrated Hosts for use outside of Mass.

Another image is that of Christ in the Winepress, also called the Mystic Winepress. In this image, the cross becomes the cross beam of the winepress in which the suffering Christ is pressed as if He were a bunch of grapes. His blood flows out like grape juice from the press. And, as the grape juice is transformed into wine, so the wine becomes the Blood of Christ through the Mass.
Man of Sorrows
From a Missal
Spanish (Valencia), ca, 1468
New York, Morgan Library
MS M450, fol. 93v

Christ in the Winepress
From Tafel van den Dersten Ghelove
Dutch (perhaps Utrecht), ca. 1405-1410
New York, Morgan Library
MS691, fol. 5r

I will continue looking at the images from the exhibition in future articles. The show will run until September 2, 2013 at the Morgan Library, which can be entered on Madison Avenue between 36th and 37th streets. Please see the Morgan Library website for information on hours and fees (

© M. Duffy, 2013 

* Some images are available at

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