The feast of Corpus Christi, often transferred to the following Sunday from the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, is an opportunity to reflect on the Paschal mystery a few weeks after Easter and to revisit the Maundy Thursday celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The feast is firmly situated in the liturgical cycle of the church, but its roots might be partly seen in growing devotion to the Blessed Sacrament at the time it was introduced. Bld. Juliana of Liege, a nun, saw a vision in 1208 of an host with a piece missing and Christ appearing to her explaining that this represented the absence of a feast to honour his presence in the Eucharist. Christ requested of her that this be celebrated in the Universal church. Eventually, the local Bishop, Robert instigated the feast. When he subsequently became Pope, Corpus Christi was made a universal celebration, though it was more widely celebrated in practice from the 14th century when John XXII promoted it. At the same time, adoration of the Blessed sacrament became more widespread. The composition of prayers for the feast may be partly attributed to St Thomas Aquinas. The readings for the Eucharist of the feast day now follow the three-year cycle, as on Sundays. In year C the gospel is Luke 9:11-17, the account of the feeding of the 5000.
What is the iconography of Corpus Christi? Pamela Tudor Craig suggests a number of different related strands.1 One of these is the image of the dead Christ in 15th and 16th century predella panels of altarpieces, such as Grunewald‘s. On the same basis one might also consider the vast number of altarpieces of the Crucifixion, Deposition, Entombment and Lamentation and of the Pieta. However, Tudor-Craig also singles out half-length images of the dead Christ in the Sepulchre such as those by Giovanni Bellini from the 1460s, which, like the predella panels, can be traced back to Byzantine prototypes. She also mentions the importance of Sakramenthaus altarpieces designed specifically to house the Blessed Sacrament, possibly including Jan Van eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb, where the imagery is very eucharistic. There are also the decorations of medieval Sepulchrum Domini whereby the Blessed Sacrament was placed in a specially designed altar of repose during the Triduum, as analysed by Colin Morris and Justin E A Kroesen. There are also paintings that depict narratives around the Blessed Sacrament such as Uccello’s series of predella paintings, which tell the story of the Miracle of the Desecrated Host. Lastly, bearing in mind the occasion which is remembered, images of the Communion of the Apostles and the Last Supper are also part of this rich iconographic tradition.
However, one of the most remarkable paintings actually featuring Christ’s body under the appearance of bread, which links to the origins of the feast, in this case displayed in a monstrance on an altar, is the Disputa or Triumph of the Eucharist or Triumph of the Church by Raphael, (above) one of four paintings decorating the walls of the private papal library of Julius II in the Stanze della Segnatura. The painting shows the church in heaven, seated on clouds left and right of the Trinity, with the church on earth arrayed below in the open-air sanctuary of an unfinished church building. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a descending dove at the centre of the painting and the Host in the monstrance, just below, at the vanishing point, unite the heavenly and earthly church and the Trinity in one. While the militant church below is studying, discussing, dictating about the mystery on the altar, the church in heaven contemplates the Trinity.
The four library walls and ceiling compartments above are dedicated to the four areas of knowledge into which the library collection was divided. There are personifications of these on the ceilings: Philosophy, Theology, Justice and Poetry. On the four walls below, dramatised scenes each expressed one of the areas: On the longer walls, Theology ie knowledge revealed by the Trinity to the church, is shown in the The Disputa or Triumph of the Church; Philosophy, knowledge of God obtained through reason, is shown in the philosophers of ancient Athens discussing together in a painting called The School of Athens; Poetry in The Parnassus. On the Justice wall there are scenes of Justinian receiving the Pandects and Gregory IX approving the Decretals, with cardinal virtues in the roundel above.
These are large scale figure scenes, each very demanding for the artist. The School of Athens is, perhaps, more original in its conception than the Disputa, but, for both, Raphael used a number of prototypes in his designs. One source of inspiration is the ancient Roman idea of paintings of Heroic Men, who personify virtues and embody history, such as Perugino imitated when he painted the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia, with paintings of Heroic Figures of Antiquity, just completed in 1507. Raphael’s designs are similarly read from the ceiling down and feature many historical figures gathered together, though they interact more dynamically than in Perugino’s paintings
The Disputa also draws on the composition of sacra conversazione altarpieces; the painting that Raphael had just finished, a collaboration with Perugino, at San Severo, Perugia in 1505 of the Trinity and six saints seems to have influenced him in the layout of groups of figures either side of the Trinity. Also, the Last Judgement painting of Fra Angelico and the more recent example by Fra Bartolomeo at San Marco, Florence may have influenced Raphael in the groupings of the figures and in the design of the pavement.
Other works which have been singled out as influencing Raphael are the more dramatic scenes in frescoes nearby in the Sistine Chapel, such as Perugino’s Handing of the keys to Saint Peter for the overall design; Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ for the left hand grouping; Pinturicchio’s fresco in the Borgia apartments below, of the Disputation of St Catherine and Perugino’s ceiling painting in the nearby Stanze dell’Incendio. Other paintings are Leonardo’s recent Adoration of the Magi and Filippino Lippi’s Triumph of St Thomas over the Heretics of 1491 in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome, the for the design layout.
It is not clear who, if anybody, guided Raphael in the overall conception and details of the design. Some suggest it was Tommaso Inghirami, librarian of the larger Vatican Library from 1510 who was at the centre of the papal court and familiar with the theology and philosophy of the day. Heinrich Pfeffer SJ suggests more caution over this conclusion by Christiane Joost Gaugier.2 He points to the obvious influence of the ideas of Giles of Viterbo, the Augustinian friar and most influential theologian at court in the scheme, directly or indirectly, possibly through a pupil such as Girolamo Seripando and to the influence of Vexillum Fidei of Georgius Benignus for the golden rays of the Disputa. Certainly, Giles of Viterbo’s vision of Theology and Philosophy being different ways to God seems to be expressed in the two main frescoes, the Disputa and the School of Athens, whether Raphael was advised by him a pupil or Inghirami. Charles Hope suggests that there may not have been a written scheme at all but that the most remarkable aspects are the dramatic arrangement of the figures in space and the harmony of the overall and constituent parts of the design, essentially artistic achievements, however central the content is.3
Originally, the monstrance with the Host was not part of Raphael’s design. He conceived groupings of the church, in the style of depictions of Famous Men, gathered in contemplation of the Trinity, but was clearly unsatisfied with how the various groups would fit together. It is widely considered this was the first painting in the Stanze, but he must have been considering the overall design at the time, and it is significant that the introduction of the Host may have crystallised his vision . We can see his first ideas in the drawing in the Musee Conde at Chantilly and in the one in the Queen’s Collection at Windsor. In the British Museum drawing, one can see Raphael exploring the idea of grouping the figures below around a central altar, in this case with a chalice and host. The arrangement of the figures on the left is explored more thoroughly in the Frankfurt drawing and the idea of a central focus is clear in this too.
By Introducing the monstrance instead of simply the Host and chalice, Raphael gave a greater and realistic visual focus to the painting: now the eyes of many of the figures could be drawn centrally, in a way that the church was used to, gazing at the monstrance. At the same time, the figures are still connected through the Host and the Holy Spirit to the mystery of the Trinity above. The Host becomes a visual fulcrum between ordered heaven and disordered humanity. Raphael gives added focus to both the Holy Spirit and Host, by placing the former at the centre of the painting, and making the vanishing point lead to the Host. For the person standing in the Stanze, the eye is lead into the space of the sanctuary in the Disputa, taking a cue from the many figures in the painting who do the same. As Mgr Timothy Verdon has pointed out, the School of Athens is like the nave of the same church building, with those in the library space between nave and sanctuary. 4 Plato and Aristotle are the pagans in the church, moving towards the altar, the Host, and the mystery of the Trinity. They seek divine truth through reason, but divine truth is also revealed directly by God and can be contemplated in the Host. The gestures of the hands of the philosophers each express the different ways that their philosophy might lead to divine truth, Aristotle’s gesture of hand outstretched almost seems to be open to the mystery of the Host, the divine under the appearance of bread and wine, while Plato’s finger points directly upwards to the heavens, beyond the empirical. Their gestures are repeated by two angels in the Disputa, to emphasise the link.
There are other similarities and contrasts between the paintings which further emphasise the link. The vanishing point of the School of Athens ends in the figures of the two philosophers while that in the Disputa leads to the Host, which they move forward towards. In the School of Athens, the light entering the space through the triple window piercing the cupola of the invisible dome in the building seems to echo the divine light source behind the three persons of the Trinity.
By introducing the Host in a monstance, Raphael gave greater visual unity to the space of the paintings opposite each other and thereby found a visual means of expressing in pictorial space the differences between the search for truth through philosophy and through theology and yet how both lead to the divine. The Host, Christ under the appearance of bread, links both the earthly and heavenly realm spatially, and through the Incarnation, theologically. Raphael chose to depict the church on earth, not as a building, but as an unfinished sanctuary space, populated by its members. As the church document ‘Ecclesia de Eucharistia‘ states after Henri de Lubac, ‘the Eucharist builds the church and the Church makes the Eucharist’. Raphael gives visual expression to that truth.
- Pamela Tudor Craig ‘The Iconography of Corpus Christi’ In Michael Hayes and Stanley Porter Images of Christ. pp 315-317, Edinburgh, T&T Clark
- Christiane Joost Gaugier: Stanza della Segnatura : Meaning and Invention, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002 and the review by Heinrich Pfeiffer SJ in the Catholic Historical Review, 94, no 4. 2007 pp 941-2
- Charles Hope ‘Artists,Patrons and Advisers in the Italian Renaissance’ in Guy Fitch Lytle and Stephen Orgel eds., Patronage in the Renaissance , 293-343. Princeton: Princeton University press
- Timothy Verdon: ‘Pagans in the Church: The School of Athens in Religious Context’ pp 114-130 In M.Hall (ed) Raphael’s School of Athens, Cambridge: Cambridge University press