Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Feast of Corpus Christi at the Morgan Library

Philippe de Champaigne, Vision of St. Juliana of Liege
French, c. 1645-1650
Birmingham, Alabama, Barber Institute of Fine Arts
(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 highpoint of the Morgan exhibition “Illuminating Faith: the Eucharist in the Art and Life of the Middle Ages” is the section entitled “Feast of Corpus Christi”. The wall card that introduces this section of the show gives a very good exposition of the history of the establishment of this important feast, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. It was officially established for the universal Church by Pope Urban IV in 1264, although its actual adoption in individual countries took another 70-75 years.

This feast, honoring the Body and Blood of Christ, was initially proposed by St. Juliana of Liège (also known as Juliana of Montcornillon). Juliana was a nun of the Premonstratensian order, a religious order founded by St. Norbert in 1120. One of the purposes of the orders he founded is the defense of and spread of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, which is the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

For many years, beginning in her 20s, Juliana had a vision in which she saw the full moon shining brightly except for one black spot. Over time she came to understand that the full moon was a symbol for the round, white Host, the Body of Christ, which is also the Church (known as the Mystical Body of Christ) and that the black spot was an indication that something was missing from the Body of Christ.

Eventually, she determined that what was missing was a feast which celebrated the Body of Christ in all its aspects. Her spiritual director, the Canon John of Lausanne, contacted a number of theologians who agreed that her visions were genuine and not in conflict with any Church teaching. Therefore, in 1246 a feast in honor of the Blessed Sacrament was established for the diocese of Liège by the bishop, Robert de Thorete.

In 1261 one of the theologians who had been consulted about her visions in the 1240s became Pope Urban IV. In 1264 he established the feast of Corpus Christi for the universal Church on the Thursday following the Sunday celebration of the Holy Trinity. St. Thomas Aquinas was asked by the Pope to compose the Office and prayers for the new universal feast and his beautiful work is still part of the celebration of the feast today. Indeed, his great poems for the feast, which include the sequence “Lauda Sion” and the hymn “Pange Lingua” (the last two verses of which are the well-known Benediction hymn “Tantum Ergo”) are in frequent use by the Church at other times as well. The feast is still celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday in some countries, while in others, including the United States, it is celebrated on the Sunday following Trinity Sunday.

St. Juliana is frequently shown holding a monstrance, the special reliquary that is used to hold the Body of Christ for adoration outside of Mass.

The Morgan Exhibition includes many images related to the establishment and spread of the feast. Through these images it charts some of the influences that form the non-specific background in which the feast was promulgated (the establishment of the feast for the diocese of Liège under Juliana’s influence being the specific background). Among these are the history of miraculous Masses, such as the Mass of St. Giles, as well as an increasing number of representations of representations of several “ordinary” Masses in prayer books, missals and other books of devotion.

Funeral Mass 
From a Psalter
Belgian (Liege), c. 1280
New York, Pierpont Morgan Lirary
MS M183, fol.252v
Mass of St. Giles Witnessed by Charlemagne and
Gisela of Chelles
From a Psalter
Belgian (Liege), c. 1290-1305
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M155, fol. 97v

From a Breviary
Italian (Bologna), c. 1315-1325
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M373, fol. 303v

Some of the images focus on one of the special aspects of the celebration of this feast, the Eucharistic procession. This is a major aspect of the feast to this day.
Heavenly Procession of the Blessed Sacrament
From a Gospel Book
Italian (Padua), 1436
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M180, fol. 68r (detail)

Processions of the Blessed Sacrament take place both inside and outside of churches, sometimes as a highly public event involving large crowds of people. One such takes place annually through the streets of Rome, from the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. Thousands of people take part, including the pope. This year, Pope Francis walked the entire distance with the people.

In spite of Pope Urban IV establishment of the feast it did not spread immediately to all corners of Christendom. Its spread took about fifty years and in some areas much longer. It became widespread only in the period 1311-1317.

The exhibition recalls many aspects introduced into the Church on the establishment of the feast. Among these are the opportunities it offered for lay involvement, in offering adoration and in participating in the Eucharistic procession.

Corpus Christi Procession
From a Missal
French (possibly Angers), ca. 1427
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M146, fol. 141 (detail)
Charles the Bold of Burgundy and Isabelle of 
Portugal Adoring the Blessed Sacrament
From the Diurnal of Isabelle de Bourbon
French (Amiens), c. 1455
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M221, fol. 80v

One of the most interesting images on view comes from the Farnese Hours, the best known work by the illuminator Giulio Clovio, made for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1546. In an impressive two-page spread we see a Corpus Christi procession moving through St. Peter’s Square. This is the old square, before the transformations made by Michelangelo, Maderno and Bernini.
Papal Corpus Christi Procession in St. Peter's Square
from Farnese Hours
Italian (Rome), 1546
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M69, fol. 72v-73r

The image unites the earthly world with the heavenly world, as angels descend from heaven where the Holy Trinity appears surrounded by angels and saints. And the procession depicted is reflected today by the procession through the streets of Rome that takes place each Thursday after Holy Trinity, most recently on May 30, 2013.

As the Church teaches, the Communion of Saints unites all believers, living and dead, in one Mystical Body of Christ. On the feast of Corpus Christi, as this last image suggests, the entire Mystical Body, living and dead, in heaven and on earth, comes together in adoration of the supreme symbol of unity, the Blessed Sacrament.

© M. Duffy, 2013

* Some images are available at

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