Sunday, June 2, 2013

In Honor of Corpus Christi @ The Morgan Library in NYC

Thanks to the Ad Imaginem Dei blog, I found out about a fascinating exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City, focused on The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art:

When Christ changed bread and wine into his body and blood at the Last Supper, he instituted the Eucharist and established the central act of Christian worship. For medieval Christians, the Eucharist (the sacrament of Communion) was not only at the heart of the Mass—but its presence and symbolism also wielded enormous influence over cultural and civic life. Featuring more than sixty-five exquisitely illuminated manuscripts, Illuminating Faith offers glimpses into medieval culture, and explores the ways in which artists of the period depicted the celebration of the sacrament and its powerful hold on society.

The exhibition presents some of the Morgan's finest works, including the Hours of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, one of the greatest of all Books of Hours; the exquisite Preparation for Mass of Pope Leo X, which remained at the Vatican until it was looted by Napoleon's troops in 1798; a private prayer book commissioned by Anne de Bretagne, queen of France, for her son the dauphin, Charles-Orland; and a number of rarely-exhibited Missals. Also on display will be objects used in medieval Eucharistic rituals, such as a chalice, ciborium, pax, altar card, and monstrances.

This exhibition is made possible by Virginia M. Schirrmeister, with further generous support from the Janine Luke and Melvin R. Seiden Fund for Exhibitions and Publications, and from James Marrow and Emily Rose.

You can see selected images from the exhibition here and follow Margaret Duffy's detailed examination and interpretation of the exhibition on the Ad Imaginem Dei blog:

The exhibition is presented in a respectful and serious way, with wall cards and labeling providing orthodox explanations of the meaning of the Eucharist, including some words, such as transubstantiation, that are seldom heard in today’s culture. The more than sixty-five items in the show, drawn almost entirely from the Morgan’s own collections, offer views of many aspects of the iconography of the Eucharist, and go well beyond images of the Last Supper. It is organized around six themes: The Institution of the Eucharist; The Introduction of the Elevation; The Eucharist and the Old Testament; Domestic Devotion to the Eucharist; The Feast of Corpus Christi and Eucharistic Miracles. I will be discussing several of these themes in the next few days.

I don't know how many of the images might come from English sources, but it is important for me to note that before the English Reformation, as demonstrated by Eamon Duffy and others, Catholics in England were most devoted to the Holy Eucharist. As Peter Marshall notes:

Late medieval religion was profoundly sacramental, that is, it held that God's cleansing power (his ‘grace’) became available to people by being channelled through particular ritual actions, and forms of words, through special material objects and sacred places. There were seven official sacraments (baptism, confirmation, marriage, the ordination of priests, the anointing of the sick and dying, penance and the eucharist). The first five of these were essentially ‘rites of passage’, performed once to sanctify particular moments in an individual's life cycle. The other two – penance (the confessing of one's sins to a priest) and the eucharist (the ritual re-enactment of Christ's Last Supper in the ceremony known as the mass) – were endlessly repeated, serving continually to renew grace in the penitent sinner. The mass had a special place in the contemporary religious imagination. Here, uniquely, Christ became physically present among his people. Mass was said in Latin by a priest standing with his back to the congregation at a high altar situated at the far east end of the church (the chancel). He was separated from the lay people in the body (the nave) of the church by an elaborately carved semi-solid ‘rood screen’ (so-called because of the great crucifix or rood which surmounted it). When the priest repeated Jesus' words ‘This is my Body … This is my Blood’, the ‘elements’ used in the ritual ceased to be bread and wine and became the real body and blood of Christ, a daily miracle which the theologians referred to as transubstantiation. Lay people received the body of Christ in the form of a fine wheaten disc or ‘host’, but this communion was for most people infrequent, taking place usually once a year at Easter time. For the rest of the year there was greater emphasis on seeing the sacrament – at the moment of consecration when the priest elevated the host above his head, bells would be rung, candles lit and (according to later Protestant accounts at least) people would jostle with each other for the privilege of ‘seeing their Maker’. Popular belief held that people would not go blind or die suddenly on a day when they had gazed upon God.

The mass was not just an occasion for intense individual devotion, but also for the expression and restoration of social harmony. No one ‘out of charity’ with their neighbours was to be admitted to receive communion. The custom of annual confession in the week before Easter was designed to impel people to make amends to those they had wronged, as well as to clear their consciences before God. During the mass an engraved plate known as a pax (literally, peace) was passed round for the worshippers to kiss as a sign of being at peace with each other. The consecrated host was itself the most powerful symbol of unity (an idealized microcosm of the totality of Christian believers who, according to St Paul, constituted ‘one body in Christ’). On Corpus Christi, the special summer feast day of the body of Christ, the host was carried in elaborate procession through the streets of Bristol, Coventry, York and other places, a means of demonstrating, and of restoring, the social unity of towns all too given to faction and internal conflict.

And certainly after the English Reformation, especially after the great via media of Elizabeth I's reign was established, and attending Mass made illegal, and then being a priest in England being made an act of treason, the Catholic Mass was the emblem and desire of being a Catholic in England--and Catholics' desire to receive Holy Communion was so great that they would risk capture, arrest, imprisonment, torture, trial, and even execution to assist a Catholic priest (and the Catholic priest risked greatly himself of course)--but those Catholics were exceptional in that age--and would be or are in ours.


  1. Thank you for linking to my blog, Stephanie. I do remember that they pointed out at least one English work in the show. It's the Tiptoft Missal. The label for it called it a rare survival and noted that, with the coming of the Reformation, the majority of English service books were defaced and/or destroyed.

    Margaret Duffy

    1. Thank you for such a wonderful series of posts! Eamon Duffy's book on Marking the Hours describes the effects of the English "Deformation" on prayer books and missals.