Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Sacrifice of the Mass at the Morgan

Elevation of the Host 
From the Tiptoft Missal
English (possibly Cambridge), ca. 1320
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M107, fol. 142r

(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.)*

The second segment of the current exhibition “Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art” deals with the Mass as a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross and with the liturgical developments that took place during the medieval period.

Introduced by a wall card that offers an orthodox explanation of the Mass as the re-enactment of Calvary through transubstantiation, in which the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, the same as were offered on Calvary. It also emphasizes how, because of the importance of the action, precisely as re-enactment, it was recognized that it was extremely important for the priest to “get it right” and for the objects involved in the Mass to be of as high a quality and as beautiful as possible.

Further, the card explains that the intense respect which people of the time held for the sacrament resulted in their infrequent reception of Communion. This, in turn, led to the introduction of the elevation of first the Host and then the Chalice following the consecrations. The moment of the elevation became a moment of extreme emotion and devotion for the lay faithful. While reading this one certainly feels the historic gap that lies between the people of the high Middle Ages and ourselves, even though the faith remains the same.

Many of the manuscript images included in this portion of the exhibition focus on the preparation of priests for Mass and their actual activities during it. 

The first image comes from a manual of preparation for Mass that was commissioned by Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel in 1520. It shows the seated Pope being presented with a pair of liturgical shoes, meant to replace those in which he had walked into the chapel, emphasizing the sacred nature of the space surrounding the altar.
Attavante degli Attavanti, Pope Leo X Prepares for Mass
From Preparatio ad missam pontificialem
Rome, 1520
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H6, fol. 1v
My favorite images from this section involve missals that I would call visual aids on “how to say Mass”. They offer us a very human view of our ancestors.

Italian, Teramo or Bologna, ca. 1375-1390
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G16, fol. 125v

Italian (Teramo or Bologna), c.1375-1399
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G16, fol. 126r
Master of the St. George Codex
From the Stefaneschi MissalItalian (Florence) or French (Avignon), Late 1320s
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 713, fol. 58r

One can see that the texts in these images are written in different color inks, blacks and reds. The texts in black are the words of the liturgy; the texts in reds are the instructions regarding the actions that should accompany the words. These red texts are known as “rubrics” from the Latin word for the red ocher pigment.  From this comes the saying "Say the black and do the red".

Another image that speaks to us over the centuries is an image showing the reaction of the congregation to the consecration. People strain forward eagerly to witness the moment of transubstantiation. This is echoed today by the total silence that commonly occurs during the very same moments in today’s liturgies. Perhaps today’s congregations do not strain forward to see, but they are certainly just as focused on what is happening as those in the 14th century.

Anticipation of the Faithful at the Consecration
Single Leaf from the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX
Italian, 1330-1335
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M716, fol. 4r
Also included in this section is a display case that is set up to suggest an altar. It is covered by a linen altar cloth and includes several medieval liturgical vessels, as well as a very rare French late medieval-early Renaissance altar card and a gorgeous luxury missal. Unfortunately, images of the liturgical vessels (all of which come from the Morgan’s own collection) are not available online. I have included very similar vessels from other collections.
Spanish, 14th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Among the vessels are samples of both a Gothic ciborium and chalice and a very rare medieval pax.
Chalice of Peter of Sassoferrato
Italy (Siena), ca. 1341-1342
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 
Cloisters Collection

The first two vessels are still used in today’s liturgies, but the pax has been out of use for centuries. This was an object, usually of metal or ivory, with an image of Christ or of the Blessed Virgin Mary or of a saint. It was placed on the altar during Mass, up to the point at which the kiss of peace occurred. At that point it was kissed by the priest and then passed to the other clergy members and finally to the congregation, who passed it among themselves, each person kissing it before passing it on. Since few people received Communion frequently this was, in some ways, a substitute means of participation in the mystery of the Eucharist.

French (Limoges), 14th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
The altar card is an unusual survivor. Altar cards were used up until the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. They presented the non-changing prayers of the Mass and were placed in prominent locations on the altar as memory aids for the priest, again emphasizing the importance attached to “getting it right”.
Altar Card
French (Paris), 1515-1525
New York, Morgan Library
MS M1147

The missal is the book that includes the prayers used for Mass, both those that do not change and those that change every day. Similar volumes are still in use today, although none are likely to be as gorgeous as this beautiful book, painted by the artist Jean Poyer around 1500.
Jesus Awaits the Crucifixion
From the Lallemont Missal
French (Tours), ca. 1500
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M495, fol. 85v

from the Lallemont Missal
French (Tours), ca. 1500
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M495, fol. 86r

What I find most interesting about this section of the exhibition is the window it opens for us into the world of the clergy and laity of the middle ages as they prepared for and participated in the sacrifice of the Mass. This insight reveals that, in spite of a number of differences (most obviously the orientation of the altar); there is actually a great deal of harmony between our own contemporary liturgical world and that of a world that has now vanished.

© M. Duffy, 2013 

For information on liturgical developments see:  
Jungmann, Rev. Joseph, S.J., The Mass of the Roman Rite, New York, Benziger Brothers, 1959.

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