The Morgan, the Moon, and the Eucharist

I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.

—Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, describing the 1969 moon landing in Guidepost Magazine (October 1970)

Master of the Rio Frio. Altarpiece of St. Martin (Spanish; c. 1500). Musée de Cluny, Paris.
Master of the Rio Frio. Altarpiece of St. Martin (Spanish; c. 1500). Musée de Cluny, Paris.

The custom of elevating the Host did not become a general practice of the Church until the thirteenth century. The bishop of Paris’ decree on the elevation of the Host—breast-high before the consecration; high enough to be seen by all the faithful only after the consecration—was issued in 1210. While the custom had been gaining ascendency among diverse practices prior to that, 1210 provides a workable benchmark for codification. Consequently, this sovereign act of Christian worship appears rarely in early medieval art. Not until the religious controversies of the post-Tridentine era did it become one of the great themes of religious art, rampant on canvases and frescoes.

The Sacred Bleeding Host of Dijon adored by a Cleric. Leaf from a choir book (c. 1536), French.
The Sacred Bleeding Host of Dijon adored by a Cleric. Leaf from a choir book (c. 1536), French.

Émile Mâle was eloquent on the distance between popular eucharistic piety and its artistic expression in public works:

It is a remarkable phenomenon that the Middle Ages, which had created the feast of Corpus Domini, chanted the hymn to the Holy Sacrament [O Salutaris Hostia], and raised its towering cathedrals to heaven to make them a more worthy abode for the Real Presence—the mystical Middle Ages whose focal point was Holy Communion—at the height of its development almost never visually represented this sacrament.

Almost never . The phrase is key. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, the sacrament was certainly depicted. But the images, rare on walls, emerged primarily in illustrated manuscripts—prayer books, psalters, choir books, devotional and liturgical texts—commissioned for private use or by monasteries and cathedrals. On view now at the Morgan Library are sixty-five of these splendid manuscripts. All were prized possessions of prosperous owners.
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Each is a unique assertion of individual piety and a beguiling artifact of Gothic graphic inventiveness.

[You can view a selection from the exhibition here .]

Anonymous. St. Eldorado Receiving Last Communion (11th C.). Novalese Abbey, Piedmont, Italy.
Anonymous. St. Eldorado Receiving Last Communion (11th C.). Novalese Abbey, Piedmont, Italy.

Illuminating Faith: the Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art was lovingly assembled by Roger S. Wieck, Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. It offers a rare opportunity to follow a neglected theme. On view are some of the Morgan’s finest works: the Hours of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, one of the greatest of all Books of Hours (the bestsellers of their time); the exquisite Preparation for Mass of Pope Leo X, which remained at the Vatican until it was looted by Napoleon’s troops in 1798; a private prayer book commissioned by Anne of Brittany—queen of France and, in her time, the richest woman in Europe—for her son the dauphin. A number of rarely-exhibited missals are also on display. In art historical terms, the ensemble is a welcome and distinguished pleasure .

At the same time, however, box office concerns imprint themselves on the tenor of the way eucharistic culture is presented. Presentation tilts—necessarily— toward the interests of daytrippers who drag along with them the dry bones of secular culture. Curatorial delight in the imagery and the genres which held it—e.g. the Book of Hours, a long-running bestseller in its time—is genuine. But museum-going, for the most part, is a kind of fortified recreation. Presentation to the general public has to take entertainment into account. And entertainment, by its nature, skims the colorful surface of its subject; and, in doing so, distorts it. As the press material states:

Illuminating Faith offers glimpses into medieval culture, and explores the ways in which artists of the period depicted the celebration of the sacrament and its powerful hold on society.

Powerful hold . Wording matters. A hold suggest dominance, sway if not overt coercion. A hold grips. It is quite different from something that informs, enriches or enlivens. For all the loving care deservedly spent on the objects here, eucharistic faith is on show as a medieval superstition, a matter of feeling and folklore rather than the basis of a common morality. And, as emphasized in the Morgan’s decision to grant pride of place to the legend of the Bleeding Host of Dijon, it was a carrier of anti-semitism.

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to Eucharistic miracles.
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Popular faith in the phenomenon of bleeding Hosts accompanied formalization of the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Visions, bleeding Hosts and miracles attributed to them surged throughout Christendom. The Host was thought to bleed as a result of violent insult by Jews. One manuscript tells the tale: “A Jew of yore mutilated the Host . . . by hitting it more than ten times and caused abundant blood to flow.”

Bleeding Host of Dijon Adored by a Couple. Image added in the 1540s to Heures a l’usiage de Romme, printed in Paris in 1501.
Bleeding Host of Dijon Adored by a Couple. Image added in the 1540s to Heures a l’usiage de Romme, printed in Paris in 1501.

No catalog accompanies the exhibition but there is a video on the Sacred Bleeding Host of Dijon. The history of the legend, its spread from Dijon to Paris, the duration of its cult, is carefully outlined. Without a doubt, it earns a place here as a matter of history. But its centrality to the exhibition is a different matter. The fact that the frisson of anti-semitism should have been made the crown and summit of the exhibition is disappointing.

So, too, is curatorial use of the past tense in discussing the Eucharist:

For medieval Christians, the Eucharist (the sacrament of Communion) was not only at the heart of the Mass—but its presence and symbolism also wielded enormous influence over cultural and civic life.

It was at the heart of the Mass and still is. The Morgan bypassed an opportunity to raise the issue of whether or not Western culture can be preserved and fostered in the absence of religion. T.S. Eliot raised the question in the late 1930s with his assertion that no culture can appear or develop except in relation to religion:

We may go further and ask whether what we call the culture, and what we call the religion, of a people are not different aspects of the same thing: the culture being, essentially, the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people.

• • • • •

Perhaps I would have been less demanding of Illuminating Faith if its run had not coincided with the forty-fourth anniversary of Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. The date passed with little notice on July 20th, little more than two weeks ago.

The men had only just landed the Lunar Module when Aldrin radioed a public request to everyone listening to “pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” Then he ended the broadcast and, in radio silence on the surface of the moon, he read a verse from St. John’s Gospel and administered communion. It pleased Aldrin to say, later, that “the words spoken on the moon were the words of Jesus Christ, Who made the earth and the moon—and Who, in the immortal words of Dante, is Himself the ‘Love that moves the Sun and other stars.’”

Aldrin described his communion experience several times between a 1969 interview with LifeMagazine to his 2009 book Magnificent Desolation . Four years ago Aldrin admitted that, perhaps, if he had to do it all over again, he would not celebrate communion. It was a Christian sacrament. As such, it did not accord with a mission conducted “in the name of all mankind.”

Eucharistic culture did not end with the High Middle Ages. I wonder if it has not suffered more in the last four decades than in all the centuries between the era of Dijon’s Bleeding Host and the Morgan’s recollection of it.