Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Domestic Devotion to the Eucharist at the Morgan Library

Receiving Communion After Mass
From Book of Hours
Dutch (Haarlem), c. 1445-1460
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1031, 193v (det.)

(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.)*

This posting was to have been done three days ago, but a series of domestic and other events proved too distracting and time consuming. So, although my plan for coordinating these postings with the celebration of Corpus Christi has gone somewhat awry, I am continuing with my comments on the current extraordinary exhibition on the Eucharist in manuscript painting in the middle ages. The section I will examine today is entitled “Domestic Devotion to the Eucharist”.

 As the wall card that introduces this part of the exhibition states “During the High and Late Middle Ages, the Eucharistic wafer and its Elevation became the focus of the ceremony (i.e., the Mass). During this era the wafer achieved cultlike status, and lay people were provided with opportunities to worship the host outside of Mass at expositions and processions”. 1

In an era when reception of Communion was infrequent, seeing the Host was a major way in which Christians could unite themselves to Christ. And it remains so today. Although today’s Church members experience more frequent reception of Communion than was common in the Late Middle Ages, one need only think back to yesterday (June 2, 2013, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ or Corpus Christi) to experience the intense devotion to the Eucharist that unites our time to theirs. This includes the many Eucharistic processions that took place in and outside of Catholic churches yesterday and the innovative worldwide hour of adoration organized by the Vatican, so that every continent and country might offer adoration to the Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist at a unified point in time.

It must be remembered that Catholics believe that the change in the nature of the bread and wine offered at Mass into the Body and Blood of Christ is a permanent one. It persists, so that the Presence of Christ remains permanently. While the Blood of Christ is always consumed immediately, Hosts may be reserved for distribution to the sick and dying and for adoration. Thus, the honor and adoration offered to the Host outside of Mass is honor and adoration directed to Christ Himself.

Master of the Morgan Infancy Cycle
Angels Adoring the Host in a Tabernacle
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (perhaps Delft), c. 1415-1420
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M866, fol. 105v
For the people of the Late Middle Ages the most frequently used prayer books were the Books of Hours, a kind of abridgment of the Liturgy of the Hours or Breviary, which was recited by the clergy. The Book of Hours contained several different devotional items, including Bible excerpts, litanies, psalms, “little” offices of various kinds, plus a calendar of the liturgical year. It was usually illustrated, often sumptuously. The illustrations were a focus of sight for their users, helping them to visualize the Mystery which was the subject of their prayer, even when the prayers were being offered in a domestic and not a church setting. In the case of Eucharistic adoration in a domestic setting, they also provided the image of the Host itself, reinforcing the Communion through sight that was the most common form in the period. It is these illustrations that the Morgan features.

Among the images highlighted in the Morgan exhibition are those that one might call “pure adoration”. These images show the Host, reserved in a monstrance or in an open tabernacle, which is supported and adored by angels.
Angels Adoring the Host
From a Book of Hours
Belgian (perhaps Bruges), c. 1420
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M76, fol. 161v

It is a pure and otherworldly participation in adoration, in which the human worshiper is joined with the angelic ones, and it occurs in both personal books of devotion and even in a large “choir” book to be used by many singers at once.

Francesco Bettini and others, Angels Adoring the Host 
From an Antiphonary (one of six "Lodi" Choir Books)
Italian (Milan), c. 1470-1495
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M682, fol. 19v (det.)

Other images that could focus the mind on Eucharistic adoration were images of celebrations of the Mass, such as the three shown here, and especially on those moments that surround the Consecration.
Niccolo da Bologna, Priest Celebrating Mass
From Liturgical Miscellany
Italian (Bologna), c. 1370
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M800, fol. 40r

Priest Celebrating Mass  
From a Book of Hours
Northern French or Flemish, c. 1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M287, 29r

Simon Bening, Mass of the Five Wounds of Christ
from Da Costa Hours
Belgian (Ghent), c. 1515
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M399, fol. 36v

In addition, there were some popular images that linked the Eucharist to the Passion of Christ.
Wound of Christ (actual size), with the Man of Sorrows
from Book of Hours
French (Verdun or Paris), c. 1375
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M90, fol. 130r

Among the most startling to our modern eyes is the image, held in great reverence, of the wound of Christ, shown in actual size. As the label for this image reminds us, ancient tradition maintained that the mix of blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of the dead Christ on the cross (John 19:33-34) were also references to the two Christian sacraments of Baptism (water) and Eucharist (blood) (see "Blood and Water From His Side").  Presented, as this image is, in conjunction with an image of the Man of Sorrows, which we have seen also has a Eucharistic reference; this is a powerful image of the Presence of Christ.

Christ in the Mystic Winepress 
From Hours of Ulrich von Montfort
South German,  c. 1480-1499
Vienna, Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek
MS Cod. 2748

Finally, the fairly common image of Christ in the Winepress (or the Mystical Winepress) in which the suffering Christ is being pressed by the winepress so that His blood flows out also relates directly to the Eucharistic experience of the Mass, although in this case to the precious Blood of Christ. (Note that the image displayed here is not from the Morgan exhibition. That image was unavailable.)

We can say with some certainty that these images, many of which were abandoned after the Council of Trent and even if somewhat strange to our eyes, have the capability of moving our own minds to adoration of the Body and Blood of Christ as effectively, if not more so, than the more language-oriented works that have succeeded them.

© M. Duffy, 2013
1. © The Morgan Library, 2013.

* Some images are available at http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/images/illuminating-faith

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