An Ally in Focusing the Faithful on the Eucharist

3 of Rome’s Greatest Eucharistic Masterpieces

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 18, 2012 ( The success of last week’s Eucharistic congress in Ireland has had me thinking about the many times the Church has tried to refocus the faithful around the Eucharist. St. Peter’s Square was constructed in the 17th century primarily for Eucharistic processions; St. Thomas Aquinas composed Eucharistic hymns and poetry; and Pope Sixtus IV rose to fame as a young Franciscan during public debates over the Precious Blood of Christ.

Art has proved over the years to be an invaluable ally in reminding the faithful of the fundamentals of faith, and the Eucharist is no exception. This week I thought I would examine three of Rome’s greatest Eucharistic works of art. Raphael lovers will have to forgive me for leaving his Vatican Disputation off this list, but I thought I would let some lesser-known stars shine.

The first that comes to mind is by the first artist of the counter-Reformation, Federico Fiori, aka Barocci. Born in Urbino, the same town as Raphael, in 1526, he rose to fame as a young man when his works were noticed by Michelangelo. One of Barocci’s greatest contributions to catechesis through art was his 1608 painting, «The Institution of the Eucharist,» today in the Rome church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The patron was illustrious — none other than Pope Clement VIII — and his papacy aimed at reinforcing the ancient teachings and traditions of the Church, in particular the Eucharist, perceived by many of the Protestant reformers as merely a symbol, instead of the true Body and Blood of Christ.

Barocci’s wondrous altarpiece catches the eye for its striking chromatic effects; the reds and yellows seem to flicker like flames. The dazzle of color is tempered by the strong composition of three triangles all focused on the head of Christ. The first stretches down to the base of the canvas where two boys are picking up receptacles. One has bread, another water, and a ewer of wine stands nearby. These objects would stand on the same level as the altar, representing the offerings of the Mass, the sacramental matter yet to be transformed.

The second triangle emphasizes prayer, and includes both St. Peter and St. John, one bowing deeply in veneration and the other open-armed in awe. The third triangle underscores the Real Presence, as Christ’s folded arms frame the host over his heart. The disc shines against the red of His robe, alluding to His physical body offered in sacrifice.

This work, stunning for its color, focused in its structure, and clear in its teaching, was one of art’s finest contributions to illustrating the significance of the Eucharist.

Bathed in light

The second work gained much notoriety in its day. Domenichino painted «The Last Communion of St. Jerome» in 1614 for the Oratorian church of San Girolamo della Carità. Today, the work is kept in the Vatican Museums, although a mosaic copy can be seen above the altar of Blessed John XXIII in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Domenichino came from Bologna where he had studied at the Academy of the Carracci cousins. Another jealous student, upon seeing Domenichino’s work, accused the painter of plagiarism from their master Agostino Carracci, who had done the same subject in Bologna in 1592.

Comparison of the two works shows that while the models are similar and that Carracci clearly inspired Domenichino, the latter’s work had a far more carefully honed view of Eucharistic teaching. This was probably the result of the close friendship between Domenichino and Monsignor Agucchi, author of one of the most important treatises on sacred art of the 17th century.

This altarpiece shows a dying St. Jerome. Paralyzed and emaciated from fasting, he receives Holy Communion for what will be the last time from St. Ephraim. He is surrounded by his followers, a ragtag band who form a chaotic circle around him. His omnipresent lion sleeps at his feet, while St. Paula, his devoted disciple, kisses the saint’s hand.

Jerome’s body has wasted away, the bend in his legs indicates their inability to support him, and he must be lifted by a follower toward the priest. The upper body of the penitent, however, seems to revive and glow as he gazes at the Eucharist. His face awakens in adoration and the host itself seems to bathe the saint in light.

The disorderly spiral of Jerome and his followers contrasts with the neat order of the priests and server— the ancient ritual encountering the messy business of death and suffering. St. Ephraim bows over the host in reverence, and the curve of his shoulders is echoed by the deacon holding the chalice. Below, an acolyte kneels at their feet, his erect body contrasting with the weakness of Jerome’s. 

In Domenichino’s work all lines lead to the host. Placed in the center of the canvas, it shines more brightly than the flickering torch or the breaking dawn in the background. It is the beacon at the heart of the work. Jerome draws us from his suffering to his hope, as the priest channels the great mystery of the Eucharist into our world and the angels flutter ready to bring Jerome to heaven. 

Domenichino, far from copying, left the world a magnificent illustration of the Eucharistic viaticum.

Given up for you

The last, and arguably greatest, Eucharistic work of Rome, was carved by a 22-year-old Michelangelo for a side chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pietà stands today in a different chapel in the new basilica, but 500 years ago, we would have stood a few feet from the work, commissioned as an altarpiece by Cardinal Bilheres de Lagraulas in 1497.

Michelangelo’s Pietà is unlike any version of the subject done before. First developed in Germany in the 13th century, the Pietà represented the tortured, lifeless body of Christ with its gaping wounds, awkwardly balanced in rigor mortis across his mother’s lap. The stiff composition made the form of a cross. Michelangelo’s Jesus, by contrast, is draped elegantly across the robes of His mother, who enfolds Him like a living shroud. 

Michelangelo’s model for the body of Christ was ancient Greek statuary with its perfect proportions and flawless articulation. No Attic sculptor would have marred the perfect form of a god with observations drawn from a dead man, yet Michelangelo did exactly that: The limp arm falls heavily downward and the veins of the hand are distended as the blood pools; the shoulder hunched under the ear as a fold of flesh rests on Mary’s fingers confers the poignant vulnerability of a human being to the body of a god — God and Man in one.

But it is the figure of Mary that reveals the true meaning of the work. She holds the body of her Son with one hand, cradling Him through a humeral veil, the cloth used to handle the monstrance. Her other hand has already released her Son and her fingers open in a gesture of offering.

Many have noted over the centuries that the Body of Christ was the most highly polished figure Michelangelo ever produced. The luminous body standing out against the shadowy robes of Mary seems to have inspired both the Eucharist of Domenichino’s St. Jerome where the light baths the saint as well as the glowing host of Barocci.

Michelangelo made Mary’s lower body disproportionately large to accommodate the body of an adult man on her lap. Despite this the Body of Christ is still awkwardly placed, seemingly about to fall from her arms onto the altar below.

The Pietà was meant for the culminating moment of the liturgy as the priest elevated the host and said, «This is my body which will be given up to you.» Michelangelo broke the barrier of space and time in this work. The Pietà reaches out of its space into ours while representing the sacrifice of Christ on the altar in real time.

Michelangelo’s youthful work would inform all future attempts at Eucharistic art. Caravaggio’s entombment, and well as the work of Barocci evolved from this. 

The interplay of liturgy, theology and art have formed a tapestry of t
ruth and beauty — captivating to the senses and satisfying to the spirit — like the Eucharist itself.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her book, The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici» was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press. She can be reached at

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