Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tale of Two Suppers

“Christ was the word that spake it,
He took the bread and he brake it;
And what the word did make it;
That I believe, and take it."
                     attributed to Queen Elizabeth I

            The New Jersey climate—at least the summer climate--is semi-tropical.  If you leave your garden unattended for a two week period the results are fairly dramatic.  It took about one full and seriously jet-lagged week, dodging thunderstorms, even to get all areas of the lawn mowed.  It was more like hay making that grass cutting.  The tomatoes were in dire need of staking, and the basil plants already threatening to go to seed.  But I finally have that all tidied up and looking gorgeous, and have been able to turn to the brute labor of the firewood, the abundant if ambiguous gift of hurricane Sandy.
            In short we had fairly well regained a sense of domestic control, and it was almost with a feeling of equanimity that we took a long afternoon off on Sunday to go into the city.  The purpose of the trip was pure pleasure: an unexpected chance to have supper with dear friends of more than forty years, Jim and Hester Magnuson, who were in town briefly from Austin. 
            As our meeting time was not until seven, we had the late afternoon free, and we knew just how to spend it.  It is a short walk from Penn Station at Thirty-Third and Seventh Avenue to the Morgan Library at Thirty-Sixth and Madison, though the heat was sufficiently oppressive to make us appreciate our air conditioned arrival.  The Morgan is one of the crown jewels of the City, and at any given moment it usually has mounted a couple of what I think of as “two hour” exhibitions—meaning that a motivated viewer can really do them justice in a two-hour visit.  What had caught my eye in the Friends’ Letter was a new show entitled “Illuminating Faith: the Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art”.
            The Morgan’s collection of medieval liturgical books is of course superb.  Even so, I had wondered beforehand whether they would be able to find enough quality objects on such a specialized topic.  I need not have worried.  The Eucharist (Mass, Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper) is the central sacrament of Greek Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism, and it plays an important role in most Protestant churches as well.  In the Roman Church of the later Middle Ages—from which all the Morgan’s materials are drawn—there were a number of dramatic innovations that encouraged an efflorescence of Eucharistic iconography.

The Corpus Christ festival in the Middle Ages            

The first of these was the invention of a major new  festival—Corpus Christi Day—to be devoted to the cult of Christ as present in the Eucharist.  An ecstatic nun, Saint Juliana of Li├Ęge (1192-1258), instructed by a private vision, made it her life’s work to promote the institution of the new feast.  One of her close spiritual friends was a local canon who happened later to become Pope Urban IV. According to the Bible the Last Supper took place on the evening of Maundy Thursday, the day before the Crucifixion.  But that day was already liturgically heavy with the ancient mournful solemnities of Passiontide.  Another Thursday was needed, and the festival of Corpus Christi was somewhat arbitrarily assigned to the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.  Trinity Sunday is not a fixed date, but it always falls in high summer.  One need not be a cynic to see that, in a world dominated by hard agricultural labor, St. Juliana’s spiritual enthusiasm might not be the only reason that a major new midweek holiday in the midsummer sun was not slow to catch on.
            It is a very strange thing for a man to hold up a piece of bread and say “This is my body;” and Christians have been, and remain, seriously divided about the meaning of it.  Large swaths of the medieval laity, by definition illiterate, pretty clearly had a magical view of the Mass.  Indeed the phrase hocus-pocus derives from the priest’s words of consecration, “Hoc est corpus meum”.  By the thirteenth century learned Roman Catholic doctrine had settled on transubstantiation.  However, that was itself a novelty unknown to the early Christian centuries.  For before you can believe in transubstantiation you have to be able to believe in substantiation in the first place.  This is a feature of the scholastic metaphysical doctrine that essentially tries to reconcile Plato and Aristotle in holding that the things of the material world have a double nature.  They have on the one hand essence or substance—the immutable “thingness” of them, so to speak.   But they also have accidence—inessential phenomenal qualities such a color, texture, weight, and so on.  The host (Latin hostia, “a sacrifice”) retains the outward accidence of a thinly pressed bread wafer but becomes in its substance the “body of Christ”.
            The cultural importance of the old feast of Corpus Christi was considerable.  Around it grew up much of the rich drama of the mystery cycles.  The Corpus Christi processions—which still exist in many parts of the world--were often magnificent.  The Eucharist (in the form of a consecrated host exposed in a monstrance or ostensorium, essentially a fancy liturgical picture frame) was reverently paraded not merely around the grounds of the great churches and monasteries, but through the residential and commercial streets of the towns and cities.  In Paris and elsewhere the bourgeois honored the Eucharist by laying out for display along the route all their most precious movables: golden vessels and silver plate, expensive clothing, jewelry, personal household images and icons.
            Some thinkers (like Queen Elizabeth) preferred to allow mysteries to remain mysterious.  The attempt to render visible an invisible spiritual world was to be sure one of the great engines of medieval art, but it also led to problems.  Several of these are hinted at in the current Morgan exhibition.  It is from the period of the most intense investment in the cult of Corpus Christi that various extravagances emerged—especially a superabundance of reports of walking, talking, and bleeding hosts.  For the Reformers the festival became a flashpoint of Eucharistic controversy, especially in the Spanish Netherlands, where the processions were on occasion attacked by mobs.  The Corpus Christ feast was abolished in all the churches of the Reform on the grounds stated by one of the Anglican Articles of Religion: “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them”.  I think it should be entirely without controversy, however, to recommend a brief gaze at the sumptuous materials gathered at the Morgan Library, where they will be on display through the middle of September.

a contemporary procession