The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as depicted in visual art through the ages.
According to the new English edition of the
Roman Missal, the priest, in the introductory rite, addresses the congregation
as follows: “Brethren (Brothers and sisters), let us acknowledge our
sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” The term, “sacred mysteries” in
reference to the Mass is of ancient origin as is the “breaking of the bread,”
or the “the Lord’s supper.” All of these terms refer to the events of Our
Lord’s passion, death and resurrection, starting on Holy Thursday with the Last
Supper, His Death on Good Friday, and His coming forth from the tomb on Easter
morn. While the Protestant denominations, since Luther, have downgraded or denied
the sacrificial nature of the sacred mysteries, retaining only the idea of “the
Lord’s supper” as a symbolic memorial, the Catholic Church has steadfastly upheld
the “Real Presence” of Christ’s very
body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharistic species as well as the sacrificial nature of the
In order to grasp the sacrificial nature of the Catholic Mass, however, one must first look to the ritual “holocausts” of the Old Testament.
The word “holocaust,” - holókaustos, a burnt or complete offering, is derived from the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament, translated, or transcribed from the Hebrew - holah kalil, with holah meaning "that which ascends, (to God)” symbolized by flame, smoke or incense, and kalil meaning "whole" or "entire". To both the Christian and Jew, the term is of highly religious significance involving a freely willed sacrificial offering specifically ordained by God. [ii]
The first recorded sacrificial offering is to be found in the book of Genesis where in chapter four the offering presented by Abel of a lamb, “the first-born of his flock,” is found pleasing to God, but the archetype of the Biblical Holocaust is found later in chapter twenty two.
“¹ And it came to pass after
these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham. And he
said, Here am I. 2 And
he said, Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and
get thee into the
The sacrifice demanded of Abraham by God
Marc Chagall - 1960
As portrayed in the above watercolor by Marc Chagall, the angel in the upper left corner points across to an image of Christ carrying the wood of the cross up Calvary to signify that it the sacrifice that God will provide, is none other than His only begotten Son.
Just as Isaac carried the sacrificial wood up Mount Moriah, so Christ carried the wood of the cross to Calvary, thought by many biblical scholars to be, or close to, the same site.
Moving on, Moses, at the direct command of God, established the feast of Passover, which while generally considered a communal meal of Knesset Israel – the congregation of all Israel, was, in fact, the greatest Holocaust of the Old Law when all Jewish families were enjoined to sacrifice a perfect young male lamb from the flock whose blood was to be smeared on the uprights and cross beams of the door of their homes before being roasted, eaten and the leftovers completely consumed by being burned.
to all the congregation of
The ritual holocausts of the
Jewish People were multitudinous, but were all codified in the Book of
Leviticus. For the Christian, as held by
“All the sacrifices of the old law were figures of the sacrifice of our divine Redeemer… the sacrifices of peace…the sacrifices of thanksgiving…the sacrifices of expiation…and finally, the sacrifices of impetration. ….Jesus Christ has, then paid the price of our redemption in the Sacrifice of the Cross. But he wishes that the fruit of the ransom given should be applied to us in the Sacrifice of the Altar ….Hence the Roman Catechism teaches that the Sacrifice of the Mass does not serve only to praise God and thank him for the gifts he has granted us, but is the true propitiatory sacrifice, by which we obtain from the Lord pardon.”[iii]
The 2nd century fresco below titled Fractio Panis from the Capella Greca in the Roman Catacomb of St. Priscilla, is generally believed to be the first known depiction of the Mass. Painted above and behind the original altar the fresco, as it is also generally believed, depicts an amalgamation of the Last Supper and a funeral service being offered up for one or all of the faithful departed buried at this site. While the sacrificial nature of this service is not emphasized, the fact that it is offered for the faithful departed, ties it to the propitiatory death of the Savior.
As seen directly below, this sense of ambiguity between the Last Supper and dispensing of the Host (Lat. Hostia –sacrificial victim) at a Catholic Mass is seen in Blessed Fra Angelico’s Comunione degli Apostoli. Here we see Christ as priest distributing communion to eight Apostles at the table while Mary (lower stage right) , as archetype of the Church ,[iv] looks across at an undifferentiated group that may either represent the remaining four Apostles or all the baptized yet to come. (Note the well or font above their heads as well as, perhaps, the as yet unoccupied stools.)
Another interesting painting of this type, showing the unity of the “Last Supper” and the “Mass” is the work of Justus Van Ghent from the Galeria Nazionale of Urbino. Commissioned in 1473 by Frederico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, for the Brotherhood of Corpus Domini. It depicts Christ as priest distributing communion to the twelve Apostles as the Duke and his retinue assist at Mass while the Duke apparently explains to the incredulous Persian ambassador (with turban) the identity the Catholic Mass and the Last Supper.
The above paintings emphasize the identification of Christ with the officiating priest as, alter Christus – ipse Christus (other Christ – the same Christ) as described below by St. John Crhysostom .
“It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s. ‘This is my body,’ he says. This word transforms the things offered. – St. John Chrysostom Against the Judaizers 1.6 (4th century)
While the “Real Presence” can not be deduced from these paintings, it is simply assumed. As St. Justin Martyr in the First Apology 66, explained in the mid 2nd. Century: “For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change (transmutation) of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.”
This amalgamation of the Last Supper as anticipation, and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as remembrance, according to Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, as explained in his seminal work Eucharistic Presence, converge and are fulfilled, in the actual events of Good Friday when Christ offered himself on the Cross: “This my body that will be given up for you – This is my blood that will be shed for the ransom of many.”
The actual depiction of the Sacrifice of the Altar in art, however, did not develop until medieval times. To counter the heresy of Berengarius (c. 1047) who held that the sacrament of the altar is but a figure of the body of Christ; as well as the growing influence of the Albigensians, Cathars and Bogomils in southern France, Lombardy and the Rhineland, who vehemently denied the real presence, or “Conversion” of the bread and wine to the actual body and blood of Christ, a new emphasis was placed on the words and action of the Consecration which included the raising up the Host - Hostia (Lat. victim) above the head of the officiating priest to be seen by all, the ringing of bells and holding of a “Eucharistic candle” to both make visible to all, the risen Host as well as emphasize by the ascending flame the sacrificial nature of the holocaust..[v]
With the official condemnation of Berengarius and clear definition of “transubstantiation” [vi] at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 Eucharistic devotion soared.
In the words of Fr. Gerard G. Grant S.J., “The lifting of the host at the moment of consecration in the Roman Mass to such a height that it became visible to the congregation ... A simple extension of the primitive rite of lifting the host to the breast before the consecration took place, was to play a singularly important part in shaping the devotional life of the Church in the later Middle Ages. The impetus it gave to Eucharistic worship is felt even today; in its own time its effect was even more profound. In the externals of worship, in the attitude of Christians toward the Blessed Sacrament, it worked a revolution. … a new fervor in worship that seemed determined to atone in a brief space for the comparative indifference and neglect of earlier times.” [vii]
Due to this explosion of Eucharistic piety, images of the Mass and the moment of Consecration itself began appearing in prayer books and missals.
The sacrificial nature and salvific power of the Consecration are emphasized in both the wood cut print and the tint version directly above as they both appear to represent a miraculous vision by the deacon or altar server of souls being released from Purgatory.
By the time of the “Trecento” or
proto - Renaissance in
cloak to a beggar. The astonishment on the deacon’s face is wonderfully portrayed. Note also the emphasis on the “Eucharistic candle,” not just as an important element of verticality in the composition, but also its liturgical significance identifying the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as a true holocaust.
The same miracle is shown in the
painting below from the Hungarian National Gallery,
Another painting (shown below) of a
miraculous event tied to the moment of consecration and Elevation of the Host
is the Mass of St. Giles by the anonymous “Master of Saint Gilles” (active
around 1500) in
According to the Medieval (13th century) “Golden Legend,” once when St Giles was celebrating Mass for King Charles Martel, an angel delivered a note to the saint telling of an un-confessed sin of the king, adding that said sin was forgiven by the atoning sacrifice of Christ repeated at the Mass, as long as he would take responsibility and repent.
The painting is of special interest as the scene painted here has been set before the high altar of the Abbey of St-Denis near Paris, whose interior as it appeared around 1500 it documents with great accuracy, although the miracle shown is said to have taken place in 719.
altarpiece in front of which Saint Gilles officiates was presented to the Abbey
by King Charles the Bald (823-77); it is mentioned in an inventory of 1505 and
remained in existence until the French Revolution. First used to decorate the
front of the altar, it would have been moved to the back of the altar table after
the Fourth Lateran Council, when the change in the liturgy made it desirable to
provide a backdrop for the elevation of the Host which we see Saint Gilles
holding up for the king, and us, to adore. Above the altarpiece is a cross made
by Saint Eloy, seventh-century Bishop of Noyon, goldsmith and patron of
goldsmiths. The small reliquary at its foot contained a fragment of the True
Cross. The copper angels holding candlesticks, and standing on brass pillars
that support the green curtains around the altar (symbolic of the mystery
involved in the Eucharistic Sacrifice), were also listed in the inventory of 1505.
Behind the altar we glimpse the gilt brass coffin of
the most often depicted “miraculous” mass in Renaissance works of art is that of
St. Gregory the Great. In the popular version
shown below by Adriaen Isenbrant painted c. 1500 and now in the Prado museum in
To emphasize the Catholicity and infallibility of papal doctrine regarding the Eucharist, elements of the Pope’s regalia are clearly present in the Patriarchal cross, the Bishops crook, and Papal tiara.
popularity of the devotion to the miraculous mass of St. Gregory even spread to
the colonies. The image below is an Aztec feather painting done in 1539 by (or
for) Diego Huanutzin, nephew of Montezuma II to be presented to Pope Paul III.
It now is displayed in the
Moving on to the Baroque, the Spanish master, Francisco Zurbaran, painted the work below in 1638 based on the miraculous vision bestowed upon Fray Pedro de Cabanuelas in 1420 at the monastery of Guadeloupe in Estremadura. (The painting remains at the monastery) Under obedience, Fray Pedro personally wrote an account of the vision, albeit written in the third person, as the Lord had bound him to secrecy [ix]
Apparently suffering from doubt regarding the real presence, Fray Pedro was granted the miraculous vision of the Sacred Host as it appeared from a cloud and dripped blood into the chalice also staining the linen pall.(historically verified) The scene is painted accurately and most beautifully by Zurbaran, an artist not only of genius, but of known piety.
Baroque masterpiece based on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is “La Misa de San
Juan de Mata” painted by Juan Careño Miranda in 1666, now hanging in the Louvre
Based on an anonymous account written shortly after the event, St. John de Matha ( b.1160 Faucon-de-Barcelonette, Fr.), while celebrating his first Mass at Paris in 1193, was granted an extraordinary vision of Christ holding by the hand two chained captives, one pale and handsome, the other dark and ugly, victims of the war in the Holy Land. After this vision, the Saint went on to found the order of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of Captives, or more simply, “Trinitarians” dedicated to ransoming and attending to the physical and spiritual needs of Christians captured by Moslems in the Holy Land and elsewhere.
painting by Carreño Miranda, originally done for the “Trinitarians” of Pamplona
does not show the explicit vision of Our Lord holding the captives hands, but
His pointing them out, below to his right, being consoled by an angel,
indicating the role that St John de Matha was to play in the future. The main
theme of the painting is, however, Eucharistic and Trinitarian. In the lower or terrestrial portion of the
This separation and intersecting of the terrestrial and celestial worlds via the Eucharist is a common device used in the Tridentine Baroque to counteract the “dualism” of Protestant theology.
Arriving at the 20th century, perhaps the most inspired painting of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is that of British convert to Catholicism, David Jones. Crafted between 1943 and 1949 in pencil, chalk, watercolor and gauche, the paining is titled “A Latere Dextro” – From the Right Side – to signify the place of the wound from which the Salvific Blood flowed. It depicts the moment of the consecration of the Chalice - “This is the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and the salvation of many.” The figure of Mary holding the dead body of her son, Jesus, (Pieta) looks on from the column at the left of the painting as wind sweeps the flame and smoke of the candles upward to the Father in this act of perfect sacrifice.
While interest in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass waned among gifted and inspired artists during the second half of the 20th century, and churches no longer commissioned them to render the theme, didactic “holy cards” remained, as seen below, in use up to the time of the Second Vatican Council.
With the shift in emphasis from “sacrifice” to “shared meal” in the years following the Council, as presented in the text below, visual representation of the “Perfect Holocaust” has all but disappeared.
“Jesus did something revolutionary when he
instituted a Love Meal at the center of public worship. For a thousand years,
as long as the
Nature, as well as super-nature, abhors a vacuum. With the denial of the sacrificial role of Christ in the Mass as “perfect Holocaust”, the concept reverted to the Jewish people as they came to call the Shoa (Calamity) i.e., the suffering and death of six million Jews, “The Holocaust.”
This essay began with an inspired painting by Marc Chagal, a Hasidic Jew, so it shall end. In the work below, Chagal shows the inexorable link between the suffering of the Jews and “The man of Sorrows.” A disembodied spirit descends from the everlasting light (Moses?) and explains to a shocked and mourning threesome the horrendous tragedy taking place below. Central to the composition is the crucified Christ, his nakedness covered by a prayer shawl, as the Red Army ravages the countryside and the victims flee for their lives. Flames from the burning village rise up as do the flames of the candles at Christ’s feet, as Holah Kalil.
Dare one hope that the Jewish people, will as Chagal has portrayed, one day recognize the causal relationship of their sufferings with those of the Savior and willingly nail them along with Him to the cross, that the “whole of Israel” may be saved in Him?
“The covenant I made with you in thy youth shall not be forgotten; … thus ratified with thee, thou shalt know my power at last; remembering still, shame faced and tongue-tied still, even when I have pardoned all thy ill-doing, says the Lord God” (Ezekiel 16: 60-63)
Dare one also hope that “the reform of the reform,” instigated by the present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, will set things straight and that the Holy, (most awesome) Sacrifice of the Mass will once again be a center of interest for both Catholic artists and those who commission them.
H. R. A.
[i] Article 372, The
[ii] Francis E Gigot, Holocaust, The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Co. - Encyclopedia Press, 1914)
[iii] St. Alphonsus de Ligouri, The Holy Eucharist, (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Ligouri Press 1943) pp. 2 – 26
[iv] “So Mary and the Church are two, yet
one single mother, two virgins and yet one. Each is a mother, each is a virgin.
Both bore to God the Father a child unblemished. The one, without sin, gave
birth to Christ’s body; the other restored his body through the power of
remission of sins. Both are Mother of Christ, but neither can bring Him to
birth without the other.” St. Augustine
Cit. Fr. Hugo Rahner, S.J Our Lady and the Church.( Zaccheus,
[v] Gerard G. Grant S.J., The Elevation of the Host: A Reaction to Twelfth Century Heresy in Theological Studies, (Milwaukie: Marquette University, 1940) p. 228
[vi]It is interesting to note that the earliest known use of the actual term "transubstantiation" to describe the change from bread and wine to body and blood of Christ was by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours, in about 1079 long before the Latin West, under the influence especially of Thomas Aquinas (c. 1227-1274), accepted Aristotelianism, let alone the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1568) - Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), article Transubstantiation
[vii] Ibid. Gerard G. Grant S.J p.,229
vCumque illa venisset se communicare de manu Dei hominis atque illum audivit dicentem: 'Corpus Domini nostri Ihesu Christi conservet animam tuam', subrisit. Quod vir Domini videns, clausit manum suam contra os eius, et nolens ei dare sanctum corpus Domini, posuit super altare, eiusque vestimento ut sibi placuit abscondit. Missa vero peracta, sibi advocans interrogavit cur subridaret quando communicare debuit. Illa respondens, ait: Ego ipsos panes meis feci manibus, et tu de illis dixisti quia corpus Domini essent.
[ix] "…Y estando así afligido, vio venir la Hostia consagrada puesta en una patena muy resplandeciente, y púsose sobre el cáliz; y comenzó a salir de ella gotas de sangre, en abundancia. Y desde que la sangre hubo caído en el cáliz, púsose la hijuela encima del cáliz y la Hostia encima del ara, como antes estaba. Y el dicho fraile, estando así muy espantado y llorando, oyó una voz que le dijo: Acaba tu oficio, y sea a ti en secreto lo que viste."