Thursday, June 20, 2019

Resources for Corpus Christi

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

The feast of Corpus Christi or Corpus Domini or The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ is a special feast day of the Church.  It occurs on either the Thursday after Trinity Sunday (in many countries) or on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday (in the United States).  It focuses our attention on the mystery of the Eucharist, in which the bread and wine that we offer are transformed into the true Body and Blood of Christ.

It was officially recognized by the Church in 1264 by Pope Urban IV, who asked St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the liturgical prayers for the feast.  Thomas responded with some of the most beautiful prayers and hymns in the history of the Church.  Artists also developed a complex and fascinating repertoire of images which celebrate the same mystery.  In past essays I have described many of the ways in which artists have responded.  Here is a series of links which you can use to access this material.

List of Posts Related to the Feast of Corpus Christi

Original Date of Publication

June 18, 2017

June 18, 2017
June 26, 2011
May 25, 2008

Posts Reviewing the 2013 Exhibition Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art 
at the Morgan Library, New York

Original Date of Publication

May 29, 2013

May 30, 2013

May 31, 2013

June 4, 2013

June 5, 2013

June 12, 2013

Posts Examining the Related Iconography of the Manna in the Desert, an Old Testament Prefiguration of the Eucharist

Original Date of Publication
August 15, 2018
August 15, 2018
August 25, 2018

© M. Duffy, 2019

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Holy Trinity -- Love Made Visible

El Greco, The Sorrow of God
Greco-Spanish, c. 1577-1579
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3:16-17 (Jesus speaking to Nicodemus)

 “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.  
In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”
1 John 4:9-10 (John the Evangelist writing toward the end of the first century AD)1

Christians, and Catholics in particular, believe in a Triune God.  Catholics begin every liturgy, every prayer with the words “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, echoing the words of Jesus himself “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  (Matthew 28:19).  Christians of all types baptize in the name of the Three Persons.  Catholics and some other Christians also end prayers with what is known as a doxology, the most familiar of which for Catholics is “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.  As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.”.  Many liturgical prayers address God the Father directly at their end in a way that includes the other Persons of the Trinity “Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

What is this all about?  “The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself.”2  Belief in the Holy Trinity is unique to Christianity and is one of the most difficult of all Christian concepts to understand.  It is a primary stumbling block for many, many people.  To Jews and Muslims it is inconceivable, even blasphemous, to suggest that God, the One God, should be Three "Persons" and that one of the Three became and remains human.  To those who acknowledge that God may exist, it is a leap too far to say that this “Force” is somehow personal, let alone triune, and that the man, Jesus, was also God.  To those from cultural traditions where many gods are the norm, it is puzzling why Christianity claims to be about one God, when it seems to name three. 
Diagram that attempts to explain the relationships within the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Each is God, but they are differentiated independently.  Therefore, the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, The son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is not the Father or the Son.  But each is God and together they are one and undivided God.  

To Christians the Trinity is one of the great glories of Christianity, but also one of its most profound (in the sense of deep and overwhelming) mysteries. Even the most subtle thinkers have reminded us that our earthbound, materially based, intellects cannot grasp the full reality of the Three in One.  Yet, the Christian belief in the Trinity appears very early on, already in use by Saint Paul in the middle of the first century, barely twenty years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.3  And, it was clearly in evidence by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, about an additional thirty years later, as evidenced by the quote in the first paragraph above.4     It certainly represents a huge break from Jewish tradition, with the strong insistence on the oneness of God.  It is a break so radical that it is, in itself, evidence of a revelation, for what devout Jew would or could imagine such a thing. 

Federico Zuccaro, Seven Archangels Adoring the Trinity
Italian, c. 1600
Rome, Church of Il Gesù
Also early and profound is the assertion that this infinite God so loved us, flawed as we are, that he chose to unite himself with us and to suffer with us at the deepest level, through the limitations of a human life, bearing physical torture and psychological suffering, and dying in his human body, just like us.  But then, Christians believe that, in a spectacular and completely unexpected act, that divine-human person also rose to a new kind of life in that same body and took that body into the infinity of God, which is the loving union of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And further, we believe that God offers a share in this new life to us, through his union with us.  Only love can do this and love is the nature of the Holy Trinity.  Although no theologian has been able to completely explain the Trinity, it is generally agreed that the essence of God is love, that this love is cosmically creative, that it is self-reflective and that the self-reflection is the source of the distinct “Persons” who sustain all of creation through the mutual, overflowing, infinitely active love which they share. 

Many times the Evangelist John reminds us that God is love and that his infinite love is also the source of his self-offering, for the Jesus who teaches and heals and suffers and dies is also the Father, and, when we see him we see the Father.
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?
The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.
The Father who dwells in me is doing his works.”
John 14:9-10 (Jesus speaking to the Apostle Philip)

Imagining the Unimaginable

Some years ago I wrote about the iconography of the Holy Trinity (see Iconography of the Holy Trinity -- Imagining the Unimaginable).  This has consistently remained one of my most popular articles.  In it I tried to explain the difficulties Christian writers and artists have had over the centuries in trying to imagine and picture the Trinity.  I also gave a brief overview of some of the ways in which visual artists have envisioned the Trinity.  In this article I will be looking at one of those treatments, in which artists have struggled to give form to the self-offering of the Trinity.

Most people in western culture today are vaguely aware of the image of the Virgin Mary holding her dead son on her lap, known as the Pietà.  The image of the sorrowing mother is one that, on a human level, no one has any trouble understanding.  One does not need to be a Christian to relate to the image.  
Michelangelo, Pietà
Italian, c. 1499-1500
Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica
Primarily the image that comes to mind is the great statue carved by the young Michelangelo, which has been on display in the Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City for centuries.  But very few are aware that a there is another image which, though derived from it, shows a far more profound, even troubling, idea.  For in it we see that God the Father presents us with the ultimate proof of his love for his human creatures.

Workshop of the Master of the Coronation of the Virgin, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), 1402
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 515, fol.130v
The Iconclass system, a system of classifying art by subject, developed in Holland during the 20th century, describes this image type as “God the Father standing or seated, holding the body of Christ, ‘Pitié-de-Notre-Seigneur’, ‘Not Gottes’”. 5  These two expressions may be translated into English as the “Sorrow of God”. It is this image that we will be examining here.

Development of the Image of the Sorrow of God

The Sorrow of God image appears to have had its beginnings in the period stretching from the end of the fourteenth- to the beginning of the fifteenth-century.  A series of other images, centering around the body of Christ depicted as bearing the wounds of the Crucifixion, appear to have played a role in its development. 

First, the image of the Pietà, in which the body of Jesus, removed from the cross, is laid across the lap of Mary, his mother. 
Roettgen Pietà
German, c. 1300
Bonn, Rheinisches Landesmuseum
Roberto d'Oderisi, Pietà
Italian, c. 1370
Private Collection

Enguerrand Charonton, Pietà of Villeneuve-les-Avignon
French, c. 1460
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Louis Brea, Pietà
French, c. 1485-1495
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Lorenzo Lotto, Pietà
Italian, 1545
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Then the image of the Man of Sorrows, in which the dead Christ stands or sits before the viewer, showing the wounds of the Passion for contemplation.
Master of the Borgo Crucifix, Man of Sorrows
Italian, c. 1255-1260
London, National Gallery
Niccolo di Tommasso, Man of Sorows
Italian, c. 1370
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection
Master of Mary of Burgundy, Man of Sorrows
Flemish, c. 1480
Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Kupferstichkabinet
Lautenbach Master, Man of Sorrows
German, c. 1480
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

A third image that contributes is the closely related “Throne of Grace” or “Mercy Seat” image, in which God the Father, joined by the symbolic dove of the Holy Spirit, presents Christ on the cross to our gaze. 
The Throne of Grace
From Psalter-Hours of Ghiluys de Boisleux
French (Arras), c. 1246-1260
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 730, fol.  203r
Agnolo Gaddi, The Throne of Grace
Italian, c. 1390-1396
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Masaccio, Holy Trinity with the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist and Two Donors
Italian, c. 1425-1428
Florence, Chruch of Santa Maria Novella

The Throne of Grace
French_c. 1470s
Cleveland, Museum of Art

All three of these image types begin to appear at least 100 years before the Sorrow of God, which can perhaps also be called a Divine Pietà or Divine Lamentation.  And it takes elements from each of them. 

From the Pietà, it takes the image of the dead body laid across the lap of a parent.
French, c. 1515
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Master of the Darmstadt Passion, The Sorrow of God
German, c. 1440-1450
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Jean le Ravernier and Follower, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours with Additional Prayers
Flemish (Oudenaarde), c. 1450-1460
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 2, fol. 54r

From the Man of Sorrows, it takes the image of the dead Christ, sometimes supported by Mary and/or John and sometimes by angels.

Giovanni Bellini, The Man of Sorrows with the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist
Italian, c. 1455
Bergamo, Accademia Carrara

Master of Flamalle, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, c. 1433-1435
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
Robinet Testard, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
French (Poitiers), c. 1470-1480
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1001, fol. 148r

From the Throne of Grace image, it takes the inclusion of the dead Christ with the images of Father and Holy Spirit.

Attributed to Jean le Noir, The Throne of Grace
From Epistolary of the Sainte-Chapelle
French (Paris), c. 1325-1375
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 34, fol. 116v

The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
Dutch (Haarlem), c. 1445-1460
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1031, fol. 52v
Master of the Holy Kinship, The Sorrow of God
Exterior Side of Double Faced panel
German, c. 1500
Private Collection

The Sorrow of God

Where the Sorrow of God image often departs from the other image types is in the relationship between God the Father and the spectator.  The images of the Pietà present Mary’s grief at the death of her son, but her grief is something we view as outsiders.  Her mourning takes place within time and is directed toward the dead body lying in her lap or on the ground before her.  Her sorrow is contained in the picture plane or the space within a sculpture.  We approach it as bystanders, closed out of the sorrowing group. 
Jean Hey (Master of Moulins), Pieta with Saints John Evangelist and Mary Magdalene
French, c. 1500
Paris, Musée du Louvre
In the Sorrow of God images the Father holds the body of his dead son, but he holds it in a way that presents it directly to our gaze.  We do not experience it through the eyes of Mary, as we do in the Pietà, nor do we experience it as a comfortably distant moment in time.  We see it in an ever new Now.  We are directly confronted by it.  Indeed, in many of the later images of the Sorrow of God, the Father looks directly out at us, as if challenging us to pay attention.  We are not invited to participate in a sympathetic viewing of the dead Jesus, but to contemplate it as a divine offering, that has cost the Father dearly. “It is not just an image that awakens the spectator's piety; it is primarily an image for God's piety, of his active and victorious mercy in Christ.”6
Attributed to the Dunois Master, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1440-1450
London, British Library
MS Egerton 2019, fol. 203
Master of Sir George Talbot, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M390, fol. 165v
Tilman Riemenschneider, The Sorrow of God
German, c. 1516
Berlin, Skulpturensammlung der Staatliche Meseen zu Berlin

It differs from the Man of Sorrows image because, although the figure of the dead Christ may be held before our eyes, it is held by God the Father and usually includes the figure of the Holy Spirit, either as a dove or as another human-like Person.  Hence, the Sorrow of God image is ultimately Trinitarian in nature.  We are to contemplate the image of the Crucified One in relation to his position as a member of the Trinity, not just as a human being.  .  In addition, in some of these images, God the Father or the Holy Spirit are shown as speaking to Jesus, or breathing upon him, returning him to human life.

Master of Mary of Burgundy, The Sorrow of God
From Hours of Mary of Burgundy
Flemish (Ghent or Bruges), c. 1480
Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Inv. # 78 B 12, fol. 13v

The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1490-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 14, fol. 108r

Master of Nicholas von Firmian, The Sorrow of God
From a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1170, fol. 111v
Master of Flemalle, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, 1430
Frankfurt, Stadelsches Kunstinstitut

It differs from the Throne of Grace image in that it is an image of pathos rather than of presentation and triumph.  It is as if the Father is asking us to understand the effects of our sin and the price of redemption.  It is as if he speaks to us and says “See what your disobedience has cost.  See how much I love you.”  It is a reminder that, as the theologian Gerald Vann suggests “the Cross…goes on, first because though the Crucifixion was an event in time it was God who was crucified; and … all temporal events, past, present and future, were all equally present.  It goes on, secondly, because, while the mystery of divine pity is temporally expressed in Calvary through the humanity of Christ, it is also eternally and constantly present in the depths of the Godhead, not indeed in the form of suffering as humanity knows it, but as the eternal will-to-share which is thus revealed as an aspect of infinite love – a will-to-share which is … the true involvement of a state of being in which the imperfections of joy or sorrow as we know them are transcended in the fullness of creative and redeeming love.”7  

Follower of the Master of Flemalle, The Sorrow of God
German, c. 1500
Private Collection

Colijn de Coter, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, c. 1510-1515
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Albrecht Dürer, The Sorrow of God
German, 1511
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The point of the image is not ambiguous, for, in some of the later images, especially those in prints, the text of John 3:16-17 is included in the image.  We are reminded that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  The images make this offering of love very clear.  We are being challenged by it, we are shown this offering of the Divine Love and we are gently urged to respond to it in love.

Hieronymus Wierix, The Sorrow of God with Quotation from John 3:16-17
Flemish, c. 1600-1619
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
In later images, the Father takes on what is almost a gesture of pleading with the viewer to avail themselves of the grace gained by so much suffering.

Johann Saderler after Maarten van Heemskerck, The Sorrow of God
Dutch. c. 1560-1600
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Federico Zuccari, The Sorrow of God
Italian, c. 1563
Rome, Church of Santissima Trinita dei Monti, Pucci Chapel

Peter Paul Rubens, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, c. 1620
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
Corrado Giaquinto, The Sorrow of God
Italian, c. 1755-1756
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

This heightened concentration on the participation of the Father in the suffering of the Son represents one of the powerful currents of thought and of Christian devotion active in late medieval Europe.  Between the apparent serenity of the “high” middle ages, which is generally reckoned to be the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the disturbed, somewhat fretful world of the fifteenth century lies the fourteenth century.  The fourteenth century saw several of the worst catastrophes to hit Europe in all of history.  These included:  serious famine, the failure of the last crusades, fraternal wars within Europe, instability in the Church and, worst of all, the Black Death, the great plague that wiped out huge numbers of people.  Perhaps in response to these disturbances nominalist philosophers developed a new philosophical theory that challenged the long tradition of idealism, going back to Plato.  Where the tradition believed in the existence of universal or “ideal” concepts, the new philosophy of nominalism held that there were no universals, only particular instances of being.  This was deeply disturbing to the way in which individuals saw the world.  Also, during this period the Church, which had been functioning at a high level, commanding respect from rulers and people throughout Europe, fell into serious dysfunction, with the removal of the Pope from Rome to Avignon in southern France and subsequent control of the papacy by the French kings, then later with several sets of anti-popes establishing their courts in places other than Rome and drawing allegiance from different countries, making for a chaotic and disunited Church.  

The general instability led people to seek new ways of relating to God and to each other with the formation of various lay communities, some associated with established religious orders, some independently under the authority of their local bishop.  Among these new movements were the Beguines, communities of lay women, and the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, communities sometimes composed of men only, sometimes of women and sometimes of whole families.  Most of these new organizations, collectively known as the Devotio Moderna, were active in Northern Europe, especially in the Low Countries and Germany, which also was the region in which the image of the Sorrow of God was most popular. Among the contributions made by these groups is one of the most well-known devotional books of all time, The Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas a Kempis and still in use today.  Among the techniques of prayer which the followers of the Devotio Moderna popularized was that of mentally placing oneself at a scene from the Bible.  This type of focused meditation may have contributed to the rise of images such as the Sorrow of God.
The Sorrow of God
German, c. 1415-1430
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum
Follower of the Master of Flemalle, The Sorrow of God
From the Ersheim Altarpiece
German, c. 1500
Hirschhorn, Former Monastery Church of the Annunciation
Pieter Coecke van Aelst, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, c. 1500
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Jose de Ribera, The Sorrow of God
Spanish, 1635
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The development of this image demonstrates the enormous power of pictures to make instantly accessible ideas that frequently require many words.  The idea which the subject of this article represents is that of John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son”.  But it is even more than that, for some of these images emphasize the aspect of the Trinity that seems hardest to understand.  They present us with an image of the Father or of the Father and the Holy Spirit in which all three figures have the same face, reminding us that Jesus said “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30).   And this is a reminder to us to contemplate the way in which the love of God has expressed itself, for in showing us the body of the dead Jesus, the Trinity is represented as showing us its very self. 
Master of Jean Chevrot, The Trinity
From a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1445-1455
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M421, fol. 15v
Hugo van der Goes, The Trinity Altar  (wings)
Flemish, c. 1478-1479
Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland
Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian,, The Trinity
From Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1495-1515
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M52, fol. 189v
Simon Bening, The Trinity
From the Da Costa Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1510-1520
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M399, fol. 340v

These images are both a reminder and a plea.  They are a reminder of the almost inconceivable love of God for humanity and also a plea to humans to remember and to receive that gift of love, so freely and so painfully given.  For the infinite, omnipotent and impassible Godhead of the Three in One incorporates within itself an element of what Vann called the "will-to-share" with us our experience of suffering, but in such a way that our human suffering is healed, if we but accept the gift.

Jean Bellegambe,  The Trinity Triptych
Flemish, c. 1500
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts

© M. Duffy, 2019

1.  Introduction to the First Letter of John from New American Bible, Revised Edition, © Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. Printed edition by Catholic Bible Press, a Division of Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville and Atlanta, 1987, p. 1413.  The same text is available online at 1 John 4.

2.  Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part I, §2, Chapter 1, Article 1, ¶2, #234.  Online at:  In print:  United States Catholic Conference, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican City State, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994.

3. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with all of you.”  (2 Corinthians 13:13)

4.  Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew from New American Bible, Revised Edition, © Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. Printed edition by Catholic Bible Press, a Division of Thomas Nelson, Inc. Nashville and Atlanta, 1987, pp.1057-1061.  The same text is available online at The Gospel According to Matthew.

5.  A description of the Iconclass system of iconographic classification may be read at Iconclass Description.  The system itself can be accessed at the Iconclass website.

6.  Boespflug, François (trans. Cuneen, Joseph).  “The Compassion of God the Father in Western Art”, CrossCurrents, Volume 42, Winter 1992/1993, p. 500.

7.  Vann, Gerald, O.P.  The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God, New York, Alba House, 1994, p. 91.

Further reading:

Boespflug, François and Cuneen, Joseph.  “The Compassion of God the Father in Western Art”, CrossCurrents, Volume 42,  Winter 1992/1993, pp. 487-503.

Schiller, Gertrud.  Iconography of Christian Art, Volume 2, The Passion of Jesus Christ.  Translated by Janet Seligman.  Greenwich, CT; New York, Graphic Society, 1977 and subsequent, pp. 219-224.

Vann, Gerald, O.P.  The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God.  New York, Alba House, 1994, pp. 75-97. 

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.