The feast known as Corpus Christi or the Body and Blood of Christ was established as a feast of the universal Church in 1264. The focus of the feast is the Body and Blood of Christ. The mystery of the Eucharist stands at the heart of the Church and there are several different ways in which that mystery has been portrayed in images throughout history.
Eucharistic iconography is a very complex subject, but I will only look at one of the images today. This is the distinction between images of the Last Supper and those of the Institution of the Eucharist. At first glance this may seem confusing. After all, aren’t they the same thing? Well, yes and no. Although the events depicted are essentially the same, the manner in which they are depicted is different.
Both types of painting focus on the events in the Upper Room on the night before Jesus died.
As the Gospel of Matthew (and the other Synoptic Gospels) tell us:
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, "Take and eat; this is my body."
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you,
For this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.
Both types of images are set in the Upper Room, both usually feature a table. Apart from that they are very different in the figural composition and narrative content.
Giotto, Last Supper
Padua, Arena Chapel
Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper
Milan, S. Maria della Grazie
However, images of the Institution of the Eucharist are different. In many of these images the distinction from a Last Supper scene is very subtle. The figures are shown seated at the table, but the atmosphere is less that of a meal than of a Mass. Jesus may hold a Host, just as a priest does during Mass, He may even make gestures like those made by the priest. This is an image of the Last Supper as the First Mass.
Fra Angelico and Assistants, Institution of the Eucharist
Florence, Museo di San Marco
In some of them, neither Jesus nor the Apostles are seated. Jesus is shown standing and the Apostles are generally kneeling. It is the moment after the words of the Scriptures have been said. It is, in effect, an image of the Last Supper as the First Holy Communion.
Jean Colombe, Institution of the Eucharist
from Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry
Chantilly, Musee Conde
MS DB 65, fol. 189v
There are images of the Institution of the Eucharist that date from well before the Reformation (which began in 1515), such as the image at the top of the page, which dates from the late twelfth century. This predates even the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi.
Among these images is a page from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc of Berry, which shows Christ distributing Communion in the manner of a priest to the faithful at Mass. In the small picture that forms the illuminated capital letter is an image of Christ holding the chalice and elevating the Host.
Another is a painting by the Flemish artist identified as Just van Ghent, but apparently painted in Italy.
Joos van Ghent, Institution of the Eucharist
Urbino, Galeria Nazionale delle Marche
Ercole de'Roberti, Insitution of the Eucharist
London, National Gallery
And there is also an example by Ercole de Roberti, in a tabernacle door probably from Ferrara in the 1490s
All of these pictures are dated to the last quarter of the 15th century (1475-1500).
However, there are many more dating from after 1515, indeed from the period known as the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Reform. This is the period that includes the Council of Trent, which ran in three sessions from 1545-1563, and the period of Catholic recovery that followed it. It covers roughly the second half of the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century.
That there should be many images of the Institution of the Eucharist in the Counter-Reformation period is not surprising. One of the principal Reformation attacks on Catholicism was on Transubstantiation, the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ that happens during the Consecration of Mass. Trent reaffirmed the traditional belief in Transubstantiation and in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist following the Consecration.
In an altarpiece from the Aldobrandini Chapel in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome by Federico Barocci.
Federico Barocci, Insitution of the Eucharist
Rome, Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Poussin, Institution of the Eucharist
Paris, Musee du Louvre
James Tissot, Institution of the Eucharist
New York, Brooklyn Museum
Although images of the Last Supper continued to be produced both in Catholic and in Protestant countries after the Reformation, the Insitution of the Eucharist images are not found in the Protestant countries.
© M. Duffy, 2011