Scripture says, when finding a treasure, some people sell everything and buy it.
A treasure not for sale but for contemplation is a small exhibit of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts at the Morgan Library in New York, 14 blocks from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
It is a radiant message about the Eucharist as the central sacrament of the Catholic faith and its effect on life and art during medieval times.
I happened to arrive as the art historian, Miriam Wasserman, was beginning a tour of “Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art,” a collection that included illuminated missals, books of hours, breviaries and other items that are part of the vast holdings of the Morgan. She gave a lively and informed presentation, telling us at the end that she was Jewish. She said the exhibition designers had the help of a theologian from Fordham University regarding the history and theology of the Eucharist. She did a superb job.
The exhibit is well organized in a small room, with most of the objects in special glass cases. The prayer books and missals are opened to pages of exquisite beauty. They were decorated with hand-drawn pictures of the Consecration, with vibrant colors made from the deep blue of lapus lazuli or the green of malachite. Gold leaf highlights the pictures and the ornate borders around the pages, giving the images — even 700 years later — an otherworldly glow.
The exhibit begins with prayer books illustrating the scriptural account of the Last Supper, with Jesus in the middle of the seated apostles, giving them the sacrament of his body and blood in the form of bread and wine in a chalice.
Miracle of the Eucharist
At either end of the room are two wall-sized pictures, enlargements of two pages from missals. One depicts a 15th-century celebration of Mass at the moment of the elevation of the Host in the Sistine Chapel. The laity are pictured behind a screen, with only their heads visible, while the priests are before the altar.
Beginning in the early 13th century, the priest elevated the Host so the people could see the consecrated Host. People received Communion only once a year then, and seeing the Host was a form of “ocular consumption,” a term used by Roger Wieck, curator of the show. Seeing the Host helped people to be united to the sacrifice of Christ.
The picture on the opposite wall is a drawing of the papal Corpus Christi procession at the old St. Peter’s in Rome from the 16th century that was found in the Hours of Cardinal Allesandro Farnese. The feast of Corpus Christi began in 1264 — announced by Pope Urban IV — but only became widespread in the 14th century. It was usually a week of celebration, with a special Mass, music, mystery plays, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, special indulgences and elaborate processions in which the Host was carried in a monstrance around the city or village. All the people participated, and they celebrated all week. At this time, the Eucharist became accessible to everyone.
According to the exhibit, the feast of Corpus Christi came about because a nun, Blessed Juliana, in Liege, Belgium, had a vision in 1246. She saw a moon with a blemish on it. Christ told her that the moon was the Church, and the blemish was the absence of a feast celebrating the Eucharist. This was communicated to the Pope, and, eventually, the feast was instituted. The feast became a public expression of faith, uniting all the people from all classes: rulers, clergy, guildsmen, musicians, bakers, families and shopkeepers.
Most of the pictures show the Eucharist in the context of Mass and the moment of the Consecration of the bread and wine. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council codified “transubstantiation,” which means that the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ and are offered to God in “thanksgiving.” This change is a miracle that later reformers in the 16th century could not accept. To convey the idea of this extraordinary miracle — that the white wafer is truly the body of Christ — some of the drawings show angels collecting drops of Christ’s blood as he hangs on the cross in containers looking like chalices that were used at Mass. This is a way of pointing to the mystery of faith that Christ’s sacrifice, made in his human body, is truly present on the altar. The leftover wafers were kept in a locked enameled ciborium about 10 inches high. The Lateran Council recommended that the ciborium be locked.
Two of the rarest books in the exhibit are missals. One was used by Pope Leo X in 1520 in the Sistine Chapel, complete with the Medici symbol. It was customary for the priest to kiss the page of the book after reading the Gospel. On these beautifully illustrated pages, created with much effort and artistry, the artist indicated where the page should be kissed with a “kissing sign,” an “x” marking the spot on the bottom of the page, lest the beautiful drawing be harmed. The other rare book was an English missal called the “Tiptoft Missal” from Cambridge, England, circa 1320. It is rare, because, during the time after Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England in 1533, he also called for the destruction of churches, sacred vessels and missals, and he confiscated monasteries and Church property. This book is opened to a page showing the priest at Mass elevating the Host.
The Real Presence
There are some prayer books that reported Eucharistic miracles, such as the vision of St. Bridget of Sweden, as recorded in her Revelations. She had a vision during the elevation of the Host at Mass in which she saw the Infant Christ above the elevated Host in a burst of heavenly fire. This vision was illustrated in the prayer book and made known to medieval Christians by preaching and art. Her vision helped people to understand the real presence of Christ in the small white wafer and helped them to deepen their faith.
The “illumination” in the exhibit title refers to the illuminated manuscripts on display.
For those without faith, the art is beautiful. For those with faith, this bit of history affirms the central role of the sacrament unto today. This exhibit is a gem, an unexpected source of evangelization.
Mary Ellen Bork is the widow of the late Judge Robert Bork.
“Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art” runs through Sept. 15 at the Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Ave. at 36th Street; (212)685-0008, TheMorgan.org.