Review by Boyda Johnstone
The Morgan Library & Museum’s “Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art,” curated by Roger Wieck, runs from May 17 through September 15, 2013. Expertly selected and arranged, and organized chronologically according to theme, the exhibition showcases sixty-five manuscripts from the Morgan’s holdings, ranging in date from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. Perusing the gallery, one is struck by how incredible it is that two small objects, a wafer and a chalice of wine, could generate so much entangled, contested, and radical meaning for so many centuries. As Miri Rubin asserts, in a quotation mounted on the wall in the exhibit:
In the name of the eucharist some of the most humbling, and the most audacious, claims have been made: that God and humans could meet and unite, mix and merge, that a disc of baked wheaten dough could embody the saving body of Christ, that the lives of men and women, of cities and nations, could be encompassed, redeemed, transformed or forsaken through it. (1)
The first section of the gallery introduces us to some of these audacious claims as we encounter, for instance, an illustration in a twelfth-century book of the Last Supper as a medieval Mass, with Christ holding the wafer and chalice; sitting next to it is an English Book of Hours in which the priest is modeled on images of Christ, a striking reversal of the previous book’s imagery. Together, these two books demonstrate how medieval people sought to transport biblical stories into the present.
Other memorable illustrations in the gallery that demonstrate the multilayered significance of the Eucharist include a depiction of the Agony in the Garden with the Eucharistic chalice standing in for Christ; a crucifix miniature in which Christ’s blood drips down the cross to cleanse the skull of Adam (representing salvation from original sin); and a fascinating portrayal of Christ’s body being crushed in a winepress, his cross pressing his body while angels collect the blood/wine from below. We learn throughout the exhibit how priests in the thirteenth century began to raise the Host above their heads for the ocular edification of the public, and many of the books provide a revealing glimpse into medieval liturgical practices, such as the use of altar cards and monstrances during Mass. A fifteenth-century Italian pax is also on display, used in the late Middle Ages to convey the Priest’s kiss of peace to the congregation, who would kiss it in turn. The acclaimed fifteenth-century Hours of Catherine of Cleves shows us two typological scenes, illustrating the parallels that were typically drawn between the Old and New Testaments—one of the Israelites gathering manna as a parallel to Christ’s corporeal sacrifice, and another of Christ as the sacrificial Passover lamb.
Tucked behind a wall, and not fitting easily into any of the exhibit’s six sections, is the gallery’s scatological contingent, with miniatures that satirize the clergy. A French book of Jacques de Longuyon’s Les voeux du paon contains in its margins a fox celebrating mass with a tankard of ale while standing on the arse of an inverted man; and a French Book of Hours displays three grotesqueries: a monkey giving anal pleasure to a man with what may be an aspergillum (used for sprinkling of holy water), a phallic spear protruding from a soldier’s thighs, and a figure fellating a flying phallus.
These dissenting books offer a welcome contrast to the generally celebratory exhibition, as other uncomfortable visual registers seem consciously suppressed. The item description of a depicted life-sized wound of Christ, for example, explains that it would have offered talismanic potency to lay readers and viewers as part of a late-medieval practice of “ocular consumption,” in which laypeople could simply gaze at sacred images and become cured of disease or evil. But the wound also bears obvious similarities to female genitalia (as has been discussed by Karma Lochrie, in reference to this very same image (190)), a detail that was not mentioned, perhaps because the notion of imaginatively penetrating Christ’s wound as an object of sexual pleasure might be unpalatable to the modern public.
Another central theme of the exhibit is the Feast of Corpus Christi, begun in Liège in 1246 and blossoming and spreading throughout Europe in the form of processions and plays in the fourteenth century. An illustrated Italian Evangeliary limns how, as Wieck’s description states, “[a] Corpus Christi procession is a little bit of heaven on earth,” as angels parade the Host through city streets, which in this book have become a paradisiacal garden.
The exhibition concludes on a high note with a section on Eucharistic Miracles, tales captured in manuscript that attempted to prove the “True Presence” of the body of Christ in the wafer. In St. Birgitta of Sweden’s Revelations, Christ and Mary illuminate St. Birgitta with visible laser beams of light as she records her visions, and the elevated Host to her left is transformed into the Christ-child under a burst of fire.
The final books are affiliated with the Sacred Bleeding Host of Dijon, which was for over 350 years a holy talismanic object for the city. One book displays a portrait of a lay couple adoring the miraculous wafer, and another tells how in 1505, the Host cured King Louis XII of France from deathly illness. It was 1794 when French Revolutionaries publicly burned the Host, but an annual Mass of Reparation was established in 1825—a mass that is still said today.
Dijon’s story of the miraculously bleeding host is predicated on Christian persecution of Jews, as it was thought that Jewish disbelievers desecrated it to test its efficacy, after which it began to bleed. But the Morgan’s display does not recount this story beyond a brief mention, a significant omission in an otherwise educative gallery. This is an exhibition celebrating medieval devotion to the Eucharist in all its forms, with hardly a mention of its more disagreeable histories—perhaps due to the esoteric nature of the subject matter, and the general audience for whom the exhibition is geared.
Yet, Roger Wieck’s masterfully selected and carefully organized books offer a wealth of information about the evolving conventions, beliefs, and anxieties surrounding the doctrine of the Eucharist in the Middle Ages. “Illuminating Faith” remains a highly worthwhile visit for medievalists and non-medievalists alike.
Lochrie, Karma. “Mystical Acts, Queer Tendencies.” Constructing Medieval Sexuality. Ed. Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 180-200.
Rubin, Miri. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.