The Feast of Corpus Christi

The feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for Body of Christ) is the day that Catholics celebrate the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (which means ‘thanksgiving’). The scriptural basis for this belief is taken from the words of Jesus at the Last Supper:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:26-28)

These words are repeated by the priest during the Mass. By an “inexhaustible mystery” that cannot be fully explained, Christ then becomes present under the appearance of bread and wine, a mystery known as transubstantiation. He becomes spiritual nourishment for the faithful, uniting them with his humanity and also with his divinity. Through Baptism, we become adopted sons and daughters of God, and through Communion that bond is strengthened as “by his indwelling we are made holy by the gift of sanctifying grace.”

The Last Supper by Dieric Bouts 1464-1467 oil on panel 180 x 150 cm., St. Peter's Church, Leuven, Belgium.

The Last Supper by Dieric Bouts 1464-1467 oil on panel 180 x 150 cm., St. Peter’s Church, Leuven, Belgium.

 

The Last Supper by Dieric Bouts, an artist we’ve looked at before, is part of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament created for the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament in Leuven and is considered to be Bouts’s greatest masterpiece. In it, we see the Flemish love of pattern and fabrics and Bouts’s distinctive attenuated figures. The painting depicts one of the earliest uses of single point perspective, seen in the orthogonal lines of the floor and ceiling. Christ is at the center, as in most Last Supper scenes, and he is presented here as a priestly figure, presenting the Eucharist and making a gesture of blessing and consecration. As an altarpiece, this painting expresses the Real Presence of Christ in a powerful way to us as the viewers; we see Jesus offering himself as the Bread of Life as he gazes directly out at us (be sure to click on the images to see enlarged details).

The Feast of Corpus Christi was added to the Church calendar due to the efforts of a medieval nun, Juliana of Liège in Belgium (1193-1252), who had visions in which Christ told her the Blessed Sacrament needed a feast of its own. In August of 1264, Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi for the universal Church.

Juliana of Liege holding a monstrance, Peter Paul Metz 1896, polychrome wooden sculpture, church of St. Gordian and Epimachus, Merazhofen, Germany.

Juliana of Liege holding a monstrance, Peter Paul Metz 1896, polychrome wooden sculpture, church of St. Gordian and Epimachus, Merazhofen, Germany.

 

Part of the celebration of Corpus Christi is the exposition and procession of the Blessed Sacrament, when the Eucharist is publicly displayed in a monstrance carried by the priest and often protected beneath a canopy. Medieval images of such processions exist in illuminated manuscripts.

Corpus Christi procession, illustration from folio 13 of the Lovell Lectionary (Harley 7026), illuminated manuscript, British Library.

Corpus Christi procession, illustration from folio 13 of the Lovell Lectionary (Harley 7026), illuminated manuscript, British Library.

This image is a detail from a page in the Lovell Lectionary, a manuscript given by John, Lord Lovell of Titchmarsh, to Salisbury Cathedral in about 1408. It was signed by  John Siferwas, a Dominican friar and known artist. In this miniature image, every millimeter has been covered in colorful, intricate patterns, from the ground to the canopy to the priestly vestments, each one unique. Even the background has been dotted with large flower designs. The man in the center wears a bishop’s mitre and carries the monstrance, which pales in comparison to the splendid vestments of the priests!

Most monstrances (which means “to show” in Latin)  are in the traditional sunburst design topped with a cross, as we can see Pope Francis carrying in this image.

Pope Francis with monstrance containing  Blessed Sacrament

Pope Francis with monstrance containing Blessed Sacrament

In some places, though, the monstrance has become a spectacular object, such as the one in the cathedral at Toledo, Spain.

 

Monstrance, silver-gilt, 1517, Cathedral of Toledo, Spain

Monstrance, silver-gilt, 1517, Cathedral of Toledo, Spain

 

Corpus Christi processions through the centuries have often become colorful spectacles, as depicted in a series of paintings from the seventeenth century in Cuzco, Peru.

Cuzco Corpus Christi procession

Parish of San Sebastián, detail from the Procession of Corpus Christi series, c. 1680, oil on canvas (Museo del Arzobispado, Cuzco, Peru)

 

Parish of San Sebastian Corpus Christi Procession

Parish of San Sebastián, detail from the Procession of Corpus Christi series, c. 1680, oil on canvas (Museo del Arzobispado, Cuzco, Peru)

 

"Bishop Manuel de Mollinedo Ending Procession and Entering the Cathedral Again, Corpus Christi series"

“Bishop Manuel de Mollinedo Ending Procession and Entering the Cathedral Again, Corpus Christi series”

In these very large paintings we can see a mixture of Spaniards and indigenous people, musical instruments, costumes, and elaborate carts included in the parades. Such elaborate Corpus Christi processions may still be seen today, particularly in Spain and Latin America.

Corpus Christi feast in modern Cuzco, Peru

Corpus Christi feast in modern Cuzco, Peru

 

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