Spring into summer was the time for open-air processions in medieval Europe. The one staged annually for the feast of Corpus Christi, celebrating the bodily presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Mass, was among the most ardent, elaborate and politically loaded of all. And it retains those qualities in “Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art,” a brilliant little survey of sacramental imagery that winds through a gallery at the Morgan Library & Museum.
Eucharist, we learn from an introductory label by curator Roger Wieck means giving thanks. And in a Christian context, the thanks went in two directions: to God for sacrificing his son to benefit humankind, and to Jesus for promising, at the Last Supper, to be forever present to the faithful through the ritual of Holy Communion.
The New Testament narrative of how that sacrament originated, as illustrated in books from the Morgan’s holdings, opens the show. Certain manuscript pictures treat episodes from the story as quasi-realistic events. In the “Agony in the Garden,” a painting from a French book of hours dating around 1490, Jesus struggles to accept his coming death, kneeling under a lambent, star-scattered night sky with a peaceful Jerusalem in the distance.
Elsewhere artists play up the drama’s theatrical potential. A 14th-century Florentine choir book depicts the Last Supper as a pulpy melodrama. Jesus is setting the scene for his future betrayer to reveal himself, but we’ve already nailed the culprit: Not only does Judas carry a conspicuously fat red purse, but his halo is black and crawling with bugs.
It’s important to remember that despite such images, the sacrament of the Eucharist is not merely symbolic. Through the ritual of the Mass, consecrated bread and wine are believed to undergo a transformation (transubstantiation) into the living body of Jesus, which is then absorbed through ingestion by worshippers.
The sharing of this sacred matter, however, was carefully controlled. Consecrated bread, in the form of wheaten disks or hosts, was potent stuff. By the 12th century, it was largely in the protective custody of the clergy, which had come to be defined as a specialized professional class set apart from the larger community. Only rarely was sacred bread distributed to the laity. Most churchgoers took Communion just once a year.
A hunger for accessibility gave rise to the concept of the Corpus Christi feast day. Like many reformist innovations, this one was initiated by a single-minded individual, a saintly citizen of Lige named Juliana who had visions of Jesus urging her to campaign for a day honoring the Eucharist. In 1264 the Vatican added the feast of Corpus Christi to the church calendar. (Today it is observed by the Roman Catholic Church on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost.)
The primary purpose of the processions was to bring the consecrated host into the street, where it was displayed in a transparent or windowed vessel called a monstrance for everyone to see. As the centerpiece of complex pageants, the host was then carried through cities and towns, radiating benediction.
A presumably eyewitness rendition of the 1546 Corpus Christi procession in Rome, painted by Giulio Clovio and found in the Morgan’s fabulous “Hours of Cardinal Allesandro Farnese,” features a cast of thousands, including a pope, a battalion of cardinals and armies of clerics and laymen snaking their way between the Old St. Peter’s and the Castel Sant’Angelo.
The parades reinforced social hierarchies and were often disorderly, even chaotic and violent, with simmering tensions. Civic and ecclesiastical bigwigs vied for pride of place. Local trade and craft guilds, from lumbermen to haberdashers, marked territory and sharpened rivalries.
Still, the religious feeling could be vehement. This was, after all, an age soaked in end-of-time paranoia and fired by a near-desperate belief in miracles, which could occur any time, anywhere.
To some visitors, the exhibition will be an array of magnificent objects and images locked in an earlier age. But as Wieck reminds us, art and faith are bigger and more surprising than that. These objects were once, like religious art in every culture, intensely alive. They were emblems of unfathomable mysteries – bread could be flesh, God could be human – that remain with us in some form in the present, and outside time.