Friday, May 31, 2013

The Eucharist and the Old Testament at the Morgan Library

Last Supper and Manna in the Desert
From Speculum humanae salvationis
Belgium, Bruges, Mid-15th Century
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M385, fol. 18v

(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.)*

In this section of the exhibition “Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art” the Morgan Library presents what is known as the typology of the Eucharist. Typology is one of the ways in which the early church and the medieval church meditated on the meaning of the Eucharist. In typology events and people in the Old Testament are related to events and people that they appear to foreshadow in the New Testament.

The use of typology to reflect on Jesus, His life, His resurrection and the Eucharist He left us begins at the very beginning of Christianity, with the New Testament. Several of the New Testament writers were the first to think of relating the events they describe to events from earlier Jewish history. As an example, in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6:30-58,  Jesus and his interlocutors refer several times to the manna which fed the Israelites in the desert, contrasting His Body and Blood, the real Bread from Heaven, with the ephemeral manna from heaven.

It is small wonder, then, that typology became a major tool in people’s thinking about theology and, especially, in presenting Christianity in a visual manner.

One of the most commonly used books in the later middle ages was the Speculum humanae salvationis (the Mirror of Mankind’s Salvation). This book was a manual of typology particularly popular with the laity, but also used by the clergy. Typically, the pages of the book would include an image from the life of Jesus and other images from the Old Testament, usually one from the Book of Genesis and another from the other books, from Exodus on. We have looked at some of these in previous articles. This kind of composition was also used in the sculpture and decoration, for example in the famous Klosterneuburg Altarpiece.

The Morgan’s current exhibition includes a copy of the Speculum which includes not just two Old Testament scenes, but three. The New Testament scene is the Last Supper. It is related to one scene from Genesis (the scene in which Melchisedek, the priest-king of Salem, the early name for Jerusalem, offers bread and wine to Abram in Genesis 14:18-20) and two scenes from the book of Exodus (the Paschal Lamb of Exodus 12 and the collection of manna from Exodus 16). Clearly, the message is that the bread and wine offered by Melchisedek and the manna from heaven prefigure the bread and wine offered at Mass and the Bread from Heaven, which the bread and wine become at the consecration. In addition, the Paschal Lamb is to be seen as a type of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary in which each Mass participates.

The Paschal Lamb and Melchisedek and Abram
From Speculum humanae salvationis
Belgian, Bruges, Mid-15th Century
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M385, fol. 19r
The Manna and the Lamb are also seen in the beautiful Book of Hours prepared for Catherine of Cleves in the mid-15th century.
The Paschal Lamb
From Hours of Catherine of Cleves
Dutch, Utrecht, ca. 1440
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M945, fol. 140v
The Manna in the Desert
From Hours of Catherine of Cleves
Dutch, Utrecht, ca. 1440
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M945, 137v
And the Last Supper is paired with the meeting of Melchisedek and Abram in another Book of Hours from the later part of the 15th century.  Here the Eucharistic typology of the story of Melchisedek is made explict.  He is dressed as a bishop and the bread and wine he offers to Abram are the Host and Chalice.

Last Supper 
From a Book of Hours
Belgian (probably Brussels), ca. 1475
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M485, fol. 40v
Melchisedek and Abram 
From Book of Hours
Belgian (probably Brussels), ca. 1475
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M485, fol. 41r (detail)

Other references to the Old Testament also occur in the show. One symbolically suggests that the New Testament has superseded the Old, the other suggests that both are necessary for salvation.
Master of Jacques de Luxembourg, Last Supper 
From Book of Hours
French (or northeastern France), c. 1465
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1003, fol. 13r

The first image shows the scene of the Last Supper seen as if it is taking place in a house from which the sides have been removed. As Judas (identified by the money bag he is holding) exits, the rest of the Apostles still sit at table with Jesus. As Judas leaves he is confronted with the image of a woman standing in a canopied niche, wearing a crown and holding in her right hand the familiar image of the Host surmounting a Chalice and in her left the shaft of a pennant which identifies her as the image of Ecclesia or Church. She represents the New Testament. In a niche on the other side of the “house” in a similar canopied niche, stands the figure of another woman. This one is blindfolded. In her right hand she holds the tablets of the Law rather limply. In her left hand is a pennant that identifies her as Synagoga. She represents the Old Testament. This pairing had a long history in medieval art.

Another, more unusual, image in the show comes from a Missal probably produced in Tours, France around 1400.

In this book, the left hand page depicts the Crucifixion.

From Missal
French (possibly Troyes), ca. 1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M331, fol. 186v
Christ in Majesty 
From Missal
French (possibly Troyes), c. 1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M331, fol. 187r

But, instead of an image of the Mass or of an Old Testament scene, such as the Paschal Lamb, the right hand page presents an image of Christ in Majesty. He sits in a central diamond-shaped space in the traditional pose for this image. The corners of the overall rectangle of the picture field are occupied by the four Evangelists and their associated beasts of Revelation 4:6-9 (themselves echoing four beasts from the Old Testament (Ezekiel 1:5-10). Thus far this image is a typical image of Christ in Majesty, seen in countless medieval images. What makes this one somewhat unusual are the two altars seen to the right and left of Christ in the central diamond. To His right, below the hand which is raised in blessing is a Christian altar, identifiable from the Chalice and the Host, which lies on top of a corporal (a small square of folded linen used to cover the chalice during Mass). To his left, the hand holding the orb, which represents the world, stands an Old Testament altar. On it is placed the tablets of the Law. Here the Old and New Testament altars appear on an equal basis, as the two foundation stones of salvation. The Law is completed by the sacrificial offering of Christ and its continuation in the Mass.

© Margaret Duffy, 2013

* Some images are available at

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