Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Other Marian Feast of May 13th – Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament

Alberto Galli, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament
Italian, 1913
New  York, Church of St. Jean Baptiste

“It does not follow because it is our special office to honor the Eucharist that we should lessen our devotion to the Blessed Virgin.  Far from it. 

He would be truly displeasing to Jesus, who should say: 
' The Eucharist is enough for me; I do not need Mary.'  Where do we find Jesus upon earth? Is it not in the arms of Mary? Is it not she who has given us the Blessed Eucharist? It was her acquiescence in the Incarnation of the Son of God — the Divine Word — that began the great mystery of reparation to God and of the union with us that Jesus accomplished during His mortal life, and that He continues in the Eucharist. The more we love the Eucharist, the more we shall love Mary. We love what our friend loves, and where is a creature so loved by God, a mother so tenderly loved by a son, as Mary was by Jesus?

If we owe reverence to Jesus, we owe it to Mary also. If we adore Him, we must honor her, and to correspond to, as well as to enter fully into, the graces of our vocation, we owe to Mary a special devotion as to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament.”1

Saint Peter Julian Eymard to members of his Society 

This May 13th the world watched as Pope Francis canonized the two youngest children of the Fatima apparitions of 1917, Francisco and Jacinta Marto on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, May 13th.  However, May 13th is also another, equally important, but little known feast of Our Lady.  It is the feast of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, instituted on May 13, 1868 by Saint Peter Julian Eymard, the Apostle of the Eucharist.

Saint Peter Julian Eymard was the founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, an order of priests and brothers, as well as the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament, an order of women, and the Aggregation of the Blessed Sacrament, a “third-order” for lay men and women. 2   In addition to his life-long love for Jesus concealed in the Blessed Sacrament, Saint Peter Julian also had a life-long love for the Virgin Mary.  It should be remembered that, before he founded the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, he had been an early member of the Society of Mary, the Marists, founded in Lyons, France in 1816, even serving as the French Provincial of the order in 1844.

Saint Peter Julian may have advocated for the establishment of a feast dedicated to Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, but the idea of a unique connection between Mary, the source of the physical body of Jesus, and the Eucharist, the continuing physical presence of Jesus in the world did not originate with him.  In one form or another it had existed for hundreds of years, both in the Latin-speaking Church of Western Europe and in the Greek- and Slavic-speaking Churches of Byzantium and Russia. 

In the early thirteenth century a Russian icon painter made an image, based on an icon then in the church of Our Lady of Blachernae in Constantinople.  The icon is of an orante type, in which the figure of Mary stands with her hands upraised in prayer.  This particular orante icon, however, had an additional twist.  On Mary’s chest, between her upraised arms, is an image of the young Jesus, with His arms raised in the sign of blessing.  The icon is known as the Great Panagia and this Russian version is still preserved at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. 
Great Panagia
Russian, 1200-1240
Moscow, The State Tretyakov Gallery

It stands at the head of a great number of other Russian icon types which feature the image of the praying Virgin with the sign of the Christ Child.  In fact, these icons are known collectively as the “Mother of God of the Sign”. 
Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign Kursk-Root
Russian, 13th Century

Icon of the Mother of God The Word Was Made Flesh
The Albazin Icon
Russian, Before 1665

Modern Icon of the Mother of God Chukhloma from Galich
Russian, Original from 1350

Modern Icon  of the Mother of God of the Sign Kursk-Root
Russian, Original 13th Century

Modern Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign Mirozh
Russian, Original 1198
A slightly different image adds another detail.  In this image, Mary stands behind an altar, on which rests a chalice from which the blessing Christ Child emerges.  This icon became known as the “Mother of God of the Inexhaustible Chalice” (or sometimes the “Inexhaustible Cup”).  Clearly, it is a reference to the Eucharist, in which the Orthodox Churches, like the Catholic Church, believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. 
Modern Icon of the Mother of God of the Inexhaustible Chalice
Russian, 20th Century

In the Western Church, the early images were not quite so concrete.  They were more allusive. Among them are paintings which feature the Madonna and Child, with obvious references to the substances which make up the Eucharist, such as ears of wheat and bunches of grapes.  Wheat and grapes have been Eucharist allusions since early Christian times. 

Ceiling Mosaic, Mausoleum of Constantine's Daughters
Roman, c. 350
Rome, Santa Costanza
The Good Shepherd Amid Vines, Sarcophagus Frontal
Roman, late 4th
Vatican City State, Museo Pio Christiano
The Antioch Chalice
Byzantine, 500-550
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection
And the symbolism of these references to the Eucharistic elements continued through the centuries of Western European art.

Madonna and Child with Grapes
Dutch, c. 1450
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Eucharist
Italian, early 1470s
Boston, Isabella Steward Gardner Museum

Pierre Mignard, Madonna of the Grapes
French, 1640s
Paris, Musee du Louvre
In the nineteenth century, following the harrowing experience of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire and its wars, France saw a revival of Catholic practice and thought.  Eucharistic fraternities were established in Paris and other cities in reparation for the events of the recent past.  And, at virtually the same time and place in which St. Peter Julian was founding the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, one of the greatest of nineteenth-century French painters embarked on a project that would last for over 20 years.

In 1841, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the leading classical painter of the first half of the nineteenth century, was commissioned by the future Czar Alexander II, then Czarevich, to paint an image of the Madonna.  Alexander may possibly have requested a western version of the Mother of God of the Inexhaustible Chalice.  It shares with that picture the altar and the central position of the chalice on it.  It also shares the centered, frontal image of the Madonna.  It differs, however, in that the figure of Mary, while remaining centered and facing front, it twisted toward the right as Mary makes a West European gesture of prayer, bringing her hands together, as opposed to the Eastern Orante position.  And, most striking of all, it is not the Christ Child who appears as seated in the chalice, but the Host, poised as if hovering over the paten which has been placed on top of the chalice.  Ingres has also added two lit candle sticks (or possibly oil lamps) to each side of the altar, as required for the celebration of Mass.  Mary is presented as if in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, present as Host and consecrated wine.  Behind her stand two figures.  They are Saint Nicholas at left and Saint Alexander Nevsky on the right. 
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Virgin Adoring the Eucharist with Saints Nicholas and Alexandre Nevsky
French, 1841
Moscow, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

The painting was something of a sensation when it was shown in Ingres’ Paris studio before being sent to Russia.  However, comment focused mostly on the technique and form of the picture, which was deemed to be very much an homage to Raphael’s Madonna paintings.  Little attention was paid to the religious content.  3

The subject seems to have struck a chord with Ingres, however, for he painted another five versions of it over the years between 1852 and 1866.  All adopt the same central figure of Mary praying before the Host and chalice, but each one differs in the other details. 

In 1852 Ingres painted the version now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It is virtually identical to the picture now in Moscow.  However, the background saints have been replaced by two saints heavily identified with France:  on the left Saint Helena (mother of Constantine, who was thought to hail from either France or Britain) and on the right Saint Louis (King Louis IX of France). 
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Virgin Adoring the Eucharist with Saints Helena and Louis
French, 1852
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1854 he painted another version, in tondo form, now at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.  Again the central image is unchanged, except for a slight change in the position of the Host which now is slightly reflected in the paten, but the sides are now occupied by two angels (they have thin haloes above their heads) who act as acolytes. The one on the left holds an thurible, from which the smoke of incense can be seen rising; while on the right the angel tends the flame of the candle or lamp.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Virgin Adoring the Eucharist
French, 1854
Paris, Musee d'Orsay

In 1859 Ingres painted another version whose current whereabouts is unknown. 4

In 1860 he returned to the subject again, in a painting currently in a private collection, but which has recently been promised as a future gift to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.5    In this version he made several changes.  The figure of Mary shows little change, save that her halo, which had been indicated by thin golden circles, is now shown as a solid golden form.  But, behind her green curtains have been added on each side, shown as being pulled back by two adolescent angels.  The chalice and suspended Host still rest upon the altar, although they are now tilted so that more of the Host is reflected in the paten.  However, a note of slight chaos, or perhaps better mischief, has been introduced.  Instead of serious angelic acolytes we are now presented by small “angels” of the cherub or putti type.  True to form for putti, they are curious and not totally focused on the awesomeness of the Eucharist.  Only one, at the far left, shows true adoration.  One plays with the thurible, while another more serenely holds out the incense boat.  One snuggles up to Mary, while gazing somewhat wistfully at the Host and the last performs the same action as the adult angel in the 1854 painting, tending to the candle or lamp.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Virgin Adoring the Eucharist
French, 1860
Private Collection (Promised future gift to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

In 1866 Ingres returned to the subject one last time in a painting now at the Musée Bonnat at Bayonne, France.  It differs from the others in being more close up (although it is just possible that the image may have been cut down).  The altar is gone and the focus is entirely on the chalice and Host and the praying Mary.  Her body is no longer twisted to make the gesture of putting her hands together.  She is, instead, shown with her hands crossed over her right breast.  The whole tone of the piece is quieter and more somber.  She is shown once again with a halo of thin gold lines.  Her companions are two angels whose only actions are to press close to her as they look at her in attitudes of intense prayer. 
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, The Virgin Adoring the Eucharist
French, 1866
Bayonne (FR), Musee Bonnat
It is interesting to me that this sequence of paintings by Ingres occupy the same years in which Saint Peter Julian was receiving his inspiration for mission and was founding his religious orders.  It perhaps indicates that there was in France at the time a hunger for examination of the doctrine and meaning of the Eucharist for the new industrial world that was coming into being. 
Alberto Galli, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament
Italian, 1913
New York, Church of Saint Jean Baptiste

The spiritual sons and daughters of Saint Peter Julian have continued to emphasize the importance of the Eucharist for a world that is hungry for God as well as for physical sustenance.  And, their New York church, St. Jean Baptiste, houses two examples of early twentieth-century interpretations of the motif.  Both show the image of the standing Madonna, holding in her arms the Christ Child, while He holds out the Host and Chalice (in one) or the monstrance with the Host (in the other).  

Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament
20th Century
New York, Church of Saint Jean Baptiste

These images bring together the Eastern and Western interpretations of the same idea, that the Virgin Mary not only bore the Incarnate Word of God, but points the way to the continuing presence of that Word in the Eucharist today.

© M. Duffy, 2017

  1. Saint Peter Julian Eymard, “The Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin”, The Sentinel of the Blessed Sacrament (Montreal), #6, April, 1903, pp. 131-132.
  2. For more on the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament see:
  3. Andrew Carrington Shelton, Ingres and His Critics, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 103-111.
  4. See the description, and especially the “Notes” section, of the entry for the New York painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art website:
  5. See: “50 for 50: Gifts on the Occasion of LACMA's Anniversary” at

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