The Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Is the Center

SCRIPTURES & ART: Peter Paul Rubens’ “Last Supper” painting imparts key lessons for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Last Supper,” ca. 1632
Peter Paul Rubens, “The Last Supper,” ca. 1632 (photo: Public Domain)

The Solemnity of Corpus Christi is, in the Church in the United States, transferred to the Sunday after Trinity Sunday. Much of the rest of the world celebrated it last Thursday. The feast originated in the 13th century: St. Thomas Aquinas promoted it and Pope Urban IV promulgated it for the whole Church. 

Vatican II reminds us that the Holy Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium, 11). St. Thomas, the “Angelic Doctor,” wanted to bolster faith in and gratitude for Jesus’ “Real Presence” — body and soul, humanity and divinity — in the Eucharist.

Are you surprised that St. Thomas wanted to stress Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, a period many Catholics take as profusely religious and many non-Catholics still unjustly caricature as the epitome of superstition? 

Don’t be! The Eucharist has also been “the source and summit” of division even before it was instituted. When Jesus multiplies the loaves and fishes, he does so not as part of “Jesus’ Plan for Food Relief” or even “Jesus’ Plan for Hospitality to Hungry People Without Access to Neighborhood Supermarkets.” Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes prefigures “the Bread that [he] will give you for the life of the world,” the segue into his Teaching on the Eucharist (John 6:25-70). “I am the living bread come down from heaven. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (6:51).

And what is the reaction to that teaching? It’s the first mass rejection of Jesus. “From this time on many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (6:66).

Does Jesus then “clarify” his Teaching? Does he propose a “dialogue” to “explain” himself? Does he suggest future potential communicants decide for themselves what they believe this “bread” to be? 

No. Without retracting a thing, Jesus simply asks the Apostles, his remaining disciples: “want to go, too?” Peter answers, “where to? You have the word of everlasting life” (6:68).

(We’ll revisit the Eucharist and especially John 6 later this summer, every Sunday from July 25 through Aug. 22.)

The Middle Ages had its Eucharistic heresies (e.g., Berengarius). The real division within Christianity occurred, however, in the Reformation. Against Catholic teaching, some Protestants (e.g., Luther) contended Jesus is “present” (whatever that meant for them) in the bread and wine (which rightly lead to Zwingli satirizing Luther’s “bread god”). 

Most Protestants insisted, contrary to John 6 (one of the few times they deny what Scripture plainly says), that the Eucharist is nothing more than bread and wine that reminds us of Jesus. For most Protestants, the Eucharist is not a change of the bread and wine (which are unchanged) but a change of me. Perhaps some Protestants also suggest there is some inchoate “spiritual change” in the bread and wine (whatever that means) but most do not even go that far. Anglicans generally are found somewhere along that sliding scale between some “spiritual change” and pure memorial.

That’s why, in most Protestant denominations, the Sunday service deemphasized the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and focused more on its “meal” dimension: it’s a celebratory reminder of Jesus, not much more. That’s why, early on, some Protestant Reformers insisted on putting their “Eucharist” into wooden bowls and cups to emphasize its unchanged nature. It’s also why the Eucharist became marginal in Protestant churches: in comparison to the Catholic Church, which celebrates Mass daily, the Liturgy of the Eucharist became an “optional extra” to the mainline Protestant Sunday service, which devolved into Bible reading and preaching. That “optional extra” might be celebrated monthly or even quarterly, but it was certainly not the center of Protestant religiosity, “source and summit of the Christian life.”

Our own day suffers its own Eucharistic deficiencies. A 2019 Pew study suggests that up to two-thirds of Catholics in the United States do not understand or believe the Church’s teaching that the Eucharist is Jesus’ Body and Blood. 

I’ve previously written about the what and why of the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist (see here and here). I’ve also written about why our COVID-19 dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation needs to end to defend the integrity of our Eucharistic theology. For those who would profit from a good but short book on the Eucharist, see here.

Suffice it to say, based on what has been written in this essay, that the Eucharist is the defining core of Catholic identity. To be a Catholic means to believe what the Church teaches and has consistently taught about the reality of the Eucharist. It’s not a “choice.” It’s not an “optional extra.” It’s an existential decision that defines one as a disciple of Jesus or not. There’s no fudge factor — just as there was not for Jesus himself.

 

Peter Paul Rubens’ “Last Supper”

The centrality of the Eucharist to what it means to be a follower of Jesus and a member of his Church is illustrated in today’s painting by Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish Baroque painter who lived at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. Rubens’ “Last Supper” captures the moment of Jesus’ institution of the sacrament. Jesus is at the center of the action. Holding the bread that will become his Body, he raises his eyes to heaven, gives thanks, and will give it to his disciples. The cup filled with wine awaits its turn at consecration. The centrality of the Eucharist is underscored by the table: it is the only element on and the only element visible on it, except for a candle. 

All 12 disciples are crowded around that table. The figures are typically Baroque: bold, colorful, virile, dynamic. They are also typically “Rubenesque,” i.e., big. Rubens’ body ideal was not lithe and willowy. The lightness of the Apostles’ faces and the color of their garments is contrasted to the otherwise dark surroundings, a typical Baroque device although not one perhaps purely coincidental to this scene, since John reminds us that when Judas left the gathering “it was night” (John 13:30), with all its physical and spiritual allusions. 

The most important feature of this painting for me are the eyes. Jesus raises his eyes to heaven, “to you, his almighty Father.” All the Apostles but two appear focused on Jesus, not each other. The eyes of the third Apostle on the left seem ambiguous: are they off somewhere in ecstatic mysticism, or are they looking towards us, drawing us into the picture? The eyes of the black-haired apostle immediately to Jesus’ left are looking at us. They draw us into the center of the picture, where the Eucharist is featured amid the bold primary colors of Jesus’ red and this Apostle’s blue and yellow clothing. 

I admit to a limited knowledge of art as to identify the Apostle. Since only Jesus has a halo, that route to identifying Judas is foreclosed. Is the disciple looking at me, his hand near his face, Judas wondering whether everybody is watching at him and asking “is it I?” Or is it Peter, leading us into Christ? Perhaps artistic commentaries and iconographic experts have an opinion: I prefer not to speculate.

What I do want to emphasize is that we are drawn into the event. The Eucharist is not just some historical event that happened two thousand years ago. What this painting depicts remains just as relevant for Jesus’ follower here and now looking at it. 

Finally, the “Bread of Life” is front and center — centered in front of Jesus who is at the center of the painting, set against the strongest colors on the canvas. Our eyes are drawn to that Bread by the vertical lines of the candle, the chalice, and Jesus’ own hand, atop those fingers of the left hand it is perched and framed by the right. The fingers of two other Apostles on the right also conveniently point in the direction of leading us to the Bread of Life. 

The vertical lines that lead us to the Eucharist at the center of the painting also lead us further up. Jesus’ Eyes, right above the Bread, lead us upward to his Father. Once we look above the Apostles assembled at table, we have further vertical lines pointing our eyes heavenwards: in the darkness above their heads we see two columns carrying the visual line upwards (a Corinthian column, reinforcing the Baroque affection for the forms of Antiquity). We also see a line of light, both the white vertical of a wall leading to the very top of the painting, and what appears to be an opening admitting light to the scene, as if light from heaven. 

The altar on the right bridges time, between “that first Eucharist” and its sacramental perpetuation in the daily offering of Mass. That altar also leads our eyes heavenward in three ways: as an altar where earth heaven descends to earth; as a fixture of vertical lines (especially with the two candles) in a lighted area; and as part of a general upward sweep in the painting that Rubens visually suggests by placing that altar above the Apostles’ heads to form the bottom line of a 45 degree angle (the top framed by a curtain) leading heavenwards. 

In a touching gesture, beneath the foot of the Apostle in the foreground who helps lead us into the center of the action lies a dog, whose warm eyes and gently tilted head also entice our vision into the painting. “Man’s best friend” is also an iconographic symbol of faithfulness. 

Rubens’ painting imparts key lessons for Corpus Christi, most especially by centering our attention on the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life.”

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Mississippi River are seen from East St. Louis, Illinois, on June 27. Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on June 24, abortion is now banned in Missouri. The nearest clinics to St. Louis are across the river in Illinois, including a Planned Parenthood in Fairview Heights that was opened in 2019 in anticipation of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Welcome to Post-Roe America

Every year on the anniversary of Dobbs, Catholics will be able to deepen their understanding of God’s role in the conception of every child, his care for the child’s growth, his knowing each by name, and the future for which he has given each child life.