Saturday, June 17, 2017

Corpus Christi – “The Living Bread That Came Down From Heaven”*

Agostino Ciampelli, Adoration of the Eucharist
Italian, c. 1614
Rome, Church of the Gesu, Sacristy
Each year, following the celebration of the feast of the Holy Trinity the Church celebrates another major feast, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, also called Corpus Christi or Corpus Domini.

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.

As its name suggests the feast celebrates the Body and Blood of Christ, specifically the elements of bread and wine which are transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood at the consecration of the Mass.  This celebration has focused primarily on the Mass itself, a procession with the Blessed Sacrament through the streets and adoration of the reserved consecrated Eucharistic Host by the faithful.  And these are well represented in the artistic record.  But there are many other ways in which the Eucharist and its elements are represented in iconography.  I will not try to cover all of these in this essay, so there will be many other essays to come.  You may access the essay, Corpus Christ – Of the Blood, All Price Exceeding, Shed by Our Immortal King, regarding the Precious Blood of Christ, which is the other portion of the Consecration of every Mass and the second part of the title of this feast. 

The Procession

What was once the most conspicuously public aspects of the Corpus Christi feast was the public procession through the streets.  Still practiced in some locations, it is now most frequent in American cities by its absence.  But, it was once one of the primary ways in which the Catholic community carried its faith into the public gaze.  

One can grasp what it must once have been like, especially in Catholic countries, by turning to the Vatican Television on the feast day and observing the Corpus Christi Mass and procession through the streets of Rome.  At about 1 hour 25 minutes on the video of the 2016 procession below, one can see the procession which follows the Mass from its beginning although, unlike his predecessors Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis chooses not to accompany the Blessed Sacrament. 

The modern procession has deep roots both liturgically and visually.  The earliest images I have encountered date from about one hundred years from the establishment of the feast for the entire Church by Pope Urban IV.    All feature the procession, usually under a canopy, of a bishop, priest or deacon(s) carrying the Blessed Sacrament in the special reliquary, called a monstrance, in which the Host is displayed for adoration.  In most images the canopy is held by humans, as it is in practice, but occasionally the artist has assigned this task to angels, emphasizing the sacredness of what the priest or bishop carries.

John Siferwas, Corpus Christi Procession
from The Lovell Lectionary
English (Glastonbury), c.1400-1410
London, British Library
MS Harley 7026, fol. 13

Corpus Christi Procession
from a Book of Hours
French (Anjou), c. 1435-1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M157, fol.172v
In this image the priest is barefoot, emphasizing the sacredness of the monstrance with the consecrated Host 
that he carries.  The laymen following carry lighted candles, a further emphasis on the holiness of the moment.

Nicholas Love, Eucharistic Procession
from Mirrour of the blessed lyf of Jesu Christ and other devotional texts
English, c. 1435-1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M648, fol.131r

Eucharistic Procession
from a Gospel Lectionary
Italian (Padua), 1436
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M180, fol. 68r
In this image, in the image above it and in the one below, the canopy is carried by angels.  Therefore, I hesitate to
call them Corpus Christi processions, which are more earthbound.  They are, however, indicative of the solemnity of the earthly Corpus Christi procession, of which they are models.
Eucharistic Procession
from an Antiphonary
Italian (Milan), c. 1465-1500
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M682, fol. 1r

Corpus Christi Procession
Hours of the Blessed Sacrament
from a Prayer Book
French (Paris), c. 1485-1495
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H3, fol. 47r

Jean Colombe, Corpus Christi Procession
from the Pontifical matutinale and missal of Jean Coeur
French (Bourges), c. 1460-1470
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G49, fol.148r

Master of James IV of Scotland, Procession for Corpus Christi
from the Spinola Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1510-1520
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS Ludwig IX 18, fol. 48v

One image, in particular, is extremely interesting, as it represents the same event as the contemporary video above.  This is a representation of the Corpus Christi procession in Rome during the 1540s.  It shows the arrival of the procession at Saint Peter’s Basilica, not the basilica as it is today, but the façade of the old Saint Peter’s, for the “new” (current) basilica was being built behind it during those years.   But, what is most interesting, to me at least, is the tiny figure under the canopy, seen slightly to the left of center in the middle distance.  It shows the Pope, carried aloft in his processional chair, with the Blessed Sacrament exposed before him.  Above the scene the sky is filled with angels preparing to shower down flowers and above the angels in heaven the Trinity and the whole court of heaven look down.
Guilio Clovio, Papal Corpus Christi Procession
from the Farnese Hours
Italian, (Rome), 1546
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library_
MS M69, fol. 72v-73r


Studio of Frans Francken II, Angels Adoring the Eucharist
Flemish, c.1615-1630
Private Collection

In Catholic understanding the substances of the bread and wine that are offered in what is known as the Offertory of the Mass become the real Body and Blood of Christ through His words from the Last Supper which are repeated by the priest at the Consecration, even though they still retain the form of bread and wine.  Also, each of the elements or “species” (i.e., bread and wine) when consecrated becomes the whole of Christ, not just a part.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts, in such a way that the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ”1 and “Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity.”2  For this reason, the Church has from the earliest times reserved some of the consecrated Hosts for various purposes: to bring to the sick and for adoration either within the specially designated structure called a tabernacle or in the monstrance.  Most usually the monstrance is placed on the altar for adoration or, as we have seen above, it can be carried in procession.  When Catholics adore the Eucharist they are not adoring the piece of metal or a piece of bread, which would be idolatry, they are adoring the One who is present in the form of the Host, Jesus Christ Himself, whole and entire, as he was when he walked on earth and as he now is in heaven, though veiled in the form of a sliver of bread.3

Images of the act of adoration of the Host are not lacking in the visual record. They can be separated into two strains: a narrative strain and a devotional strain.

  • The narrative works show people engaged in adoring the exposed Host. 
Gold Scrolls Group, Veneration of Host
from a Missal
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1415-1425
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 374, fol.179v

Master of the Flemish Boetius, Adoration of the Host
from Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolph of Saxony
Belgian (Ghent), c.1480
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 181, fol. 81

Marten Pepijn, St. Norbert Adoring the Eucharist
Flemish, 1637
Antwerp, Cathedral of Our Lady

Cristobal de Villalpando, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
Mexican, c. 1690-1699
Mexico City, Private Collection

Giambattista Tiepolo, Vision of St. Pascal Baylon
Italian, 1767-1769
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Arcadio Mas y Fondevila, Corpus Christi
Spanish, 1887
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
This picture depicts priest and people in adoration at one of the street altars that are a part of the traditional Corpus Christi procession through a town.
Frank Duvenek, Benediction
American, c. 1910
Covington, KY, St. Mary's Cathedral, Basilica of the Assumption

This last image above depicts Benediction, the closing element of a period of Eucharistic Adoration or of a Eucharistic procession in which the priest blesses the assembled people with the monstrance containing the Host. With his face hidden behind the monstrance and his hands covered with the humeral veil the priest becomes invisible to the congregation and it is the Eucharistic Christ Himself whom they see as He blesses them.

  • The devotional type presents an image of the consecrated Host to the viewer as a sort of substitute for the presence of an actual Host. Presumably the latter served the purpose of offering the viewer a chance to join his or her own prayer to those of people praying before the actual exposed Host when the viewer was unable to be present physically.

Master of the Dark Eyes, Host Adored by Angels
from a Book of Hours
Dutch (Utrecht), c.1490
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 G 9, fol. 134r

Jean Poyer, Angels Adoring the Host
from the Prayer Book of Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), 1492-1495
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
 MS M 50, fol. 11v

Image of the Host
from a Book of Hours
Flemish, (Bruges), c.1500-1510
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 128 G 33, fol.  94v

Masters of the Suffrages, Angels Adoring the Host
from a Book of Hours
Dutch (Leyden), c.1500-1510
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 129 G 2, fol. 119v

Painter of Additional Manuscript 15677, Angels Adoring the Host
from a Book of Hours
Flemish, c.1500
Cambridge (UK), Fitzwilliam Museum
MS Marlay Cutting G. 7d

Jean Bourdichon, Angels Adoring the Host
from Heures de Frédéric d'Aragon
French (Tours), 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10532, fol. 302

Master of Claude de France, Host on an Altar for Adoration
from Prayer Book
French (Tours), 1515-1520
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 1166, fol. 52v
Those familiar with the rite of Benediction will recognize the text on this page.  It is the dialogue and prayer recited 
just before the act of benediction, when the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament is positioned on the
altar and priest and people are facing it.  This is the same prayer used today in exactly the same way.   
Angels Adoring the Host
from a Prayer Book
Flanders (Antwerp), c.1525
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 E 4, fol. 36v

Anton Wierix, Angels Adoring the Holy Eucharist, Surrounded by the Other Sacraments
Flemish, c. 1580-1604
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
This engraving could be considered to be a Catholic Counter-Reformation didactic work.  It represents both adoration of the 
Eucharist, which the reformers opposed, and the other six Sacraments.  The early Reformers had reduced the sacraments to two:  Baptism and the Eucharist, and even these were rejected by later waves of dissent.

Jan Anton van der Baren, The Eucharist in a Floral Wreath
Flemish, c. 1635-1659
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Alexander Coosemans, Allegory of the Eucharist
Flemish, c. 1641-1689
Le Mans, Tesse Museum

Jan Davidszoon DeHeem, The Eucharist Surrounded by Fruit Garlands
Dutch, 1648
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

David Teniers the Younger, Sacramental Miracle of St. Gudule (detail)
Dutch, c. 1630-1690
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Jan van Kessel, Still Life of Flowers and Grapes Encircling the Eucharist in a Niche
Dutch, c. 1670
Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland

  • There is also a third type, which to some extent combines the two above, that was often used for the decoration of tabernacles and for large church paintings, such as altarpieces or building spaces.  In these the host, the host and chalice or the monstrance is often held aloft by Christ Himself, or by the personification of the Church or of Faith or by angels and adored by saints and/or angels. 

Christ Presenting the Eucharist for Adoration
from the Sacramentary of Charles the Bald
French, c. 870
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1141, fol. 5

Tabernacle with Angels Adoring the Eucharist
Italian (Sicily), 16th Century
Palermo, Galleria Regionale della Sicilia

Raphael, Faith with the Eucharist Flanked by Angels Holding the Inscriptions Bearing the Name and Monogram of Christ
Italian, 1507
Vatican, Pinacoteca
Jacob Jordaens, Veneration of the Eucharist
Dutch, Early 1630s
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland

Peter Paul Rubens, Glorification of the Eucharist
Sketch for an Altar in the Church of the Shod Carmelites of Antwerp
Flemish, c. 1630-1632
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Juan de Valdes-Leal, Triumph of the Eucharist
Spanish, c. 1651-1700
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum & Foundation Corboud

Lodewyck de Deyster, Glorification of the Eucharist, Angels and Allegorical Figures of the Arts and Sciences
Presenting the work of Joannes (Jan) de Vos
Flemish, 1695
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Adoration of the Eucharist by Angels and Three Saints
Italian, 18th Century
Amelia, Sant'Aguostino

Adoration of the Host
German, 1729
Huysburg am Harz, Monastery Church of the Assumption
Last Supper with Adoration of the Eucharist
Italian, 1731-1748
Vernole, Church of the Assumption

© M. Duffy, 2017

* The title is taken from John 6:51.
  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1377.  Also see The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 284.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1413.  Also see The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 282.
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 1378 and 1379.  Also see The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 286.
All of the above are available online at

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