Sacraments, Iconography of

views updated


The representation of the Sacraments as rites performed by the clergy appeared first in the 14th century. Earlier representation was typological. Few examples of representation of rites can be noted before that time, though there is the instance in Carolingian ivories of the school of Metz. The iconographic representation of Sacraments may thus be considered under two manifestations: those representations based on the typology of the Sacraments and those descriptive of the liturgical rite itself.

Typological Representation. Since the origin of Christian art, sacramental connotations have underlain many aspects of symbolism, whether under the veil of the testimonia of the Old Testament or the veil of the mysteria of the New Testament. The typology of the Sacraments has to be considered as a branch of typology in general (J. Daniélou, Bible et Liturgie, Paris 1958), since testamentary images or types may signify or symbolize a sacramental content. For a millennium the typology of the Sacraments remained, in Christian art as in its theological prototypes, immersed, as it were, in typology at large. For instance, the Last Supper carved on the doorways of Romanesque churches in Burgundy, Provence, and Languedoc has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, the Last Supper is the memorial of the institution of the Eucharist by Christ. Yet on the lintels of the doorways of Saint-Julien at Jonzy, Vandeins, Bellenaves, Savigny, Saint-Pons at Thomières, and Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, the Eucharist is associated also with Baptism and Penance. These two Sacraments are "typified" by Christ's washing of the feet of the Apostles. On the traditional connection of the washing of the feet with Baptism and Penance, there is the testimony of Walafrid Strabo (Glossa ordinaria, Evangelium secundum Johannem, 13.8). The example of a double illumination painted c. 1085 in the Vyšehrad (Coronation) Gospelbook (National and University Library, Prague MS 14, A13) presents the Last Supper with the inscription Panem sanctificat Christus quo secula pascat. Underneath the Last Supper, the washing of the feet bears the inscription Abluit exterius sordes qui cor lavat intus. On the other hand, an eschatological implication accompanies the Romanesque doorways cited above because, over the lintel carved with the "figures" of Eucharist, Baptism, and Penance, the Majestas Domini was set in the tympanum to recall that, through the union of Christ and His Church in His Sacraments, the soul is invited to the mystical banquet.

Types of Sacraments exist in figures of the Old Testament and in mysteries of the New Testament. Examples signifying the Eucharist are: the sacrifice of Isaac; Melchisedec bringing out to Abram bread and wine; the fall of manna; and the multiplication of the loaves of bread and of the two fish. The multiplication of the loaves and the fish, quite frequent in early Christian art and second in importance only to the Last Supper, was gradually replaced by the miracle at Cana. On the Romanesque doorway at Charlieu, the miracle at Cana, a New Testament type of the Eucharist manifested sub gratia, is carved on the tympanum above its Old Testament symbolical anticipation sub lege. The Old Testament type is a liturgical sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem. Both scenes at Charlieu symbolize the blood shed on Mt. Calvary and the lamb sacrificed on the altar by the consecrating priest.

Until late Gothic art sacramental symbolism remained focused primarily on Baptism and the Eucharist. As early as the end of the 2d century, frescoes in the Cappella Greca (Roman catacomb of Priscilla) symbolized Baptism by the figures of the Ark of Noah and the water struck from the rock of Horeb, and by the miracle of Christ healing the cripple at the pool of Bethsaida.

During the typological period of the iconography of the Sacraments, some figures from the Old Testament and miracles in the New Testament kept an ambiguous symbolism and could be interpreted in terms of either Baptism or the Eucharist. The bronze baptismal font in the cathedral of Hildesheim (c. 1208) summed up the traditional typology of Baptism; the Baptism of Christ was cast on the vat, and on the lid, an additional commentary of the sacramental effect of Baptism (significando causat ), the remission of sins. This is shown as the forgiveness obtained by the sinful woman who anointed Jesus' feet. The crossing of the Jordan by Israel, an Old Testament type of Baptism cast on the vat, was explained on the lid by the allegorical figure of misericordia. Thus misericordia is the pity of God opening the promised land to his Church through the channel of the Sacraments. A second crossing, of the Red Sea, was cast on the vat and duplicated on the lid by a New Testament figure: the massacre of the Innocents, intimating the innocence of Christ the slaughtered Lamb.

Transition to Liturgical Character. In an earlier baptismal font cast c. 1117 by Renier of Huy for the baptistery of the cathedral of Liège (today in St. Bartholomew, Liège), the stress was laid for the first time on the liturgical character of the rite, through the double baptismby both immersion and aspersionof the centurion Cornelius by St. Peter (Acts, ch. 10) and, according to apocryphal tradition, of the philosopher Crato by St. John at Ephesus. The neo-Hellenic elegance of the figures modeled by Renier of Huy announced the idealism of Gothic art. At the same time the iconographic program of the Liège font ushered in a decisive shift in the representation of the Sacraments.

The seven Sacraments illustrated as a sequence and in the realistic vein of liturgical enactments appear for the first time in the Passionary of Cunegonde, daughter of Ottakar II and abbess of the monastery of St. George in the castle of Prague (Prague, National and University Library MS 14, A17). Possibly, the program was dictated by the Dominican who wrote a treatise incorporated in the Passionary; the decoration of the book was not finished at the time of Cunegonde's death (1321). Although the seven vignettes representing the Sacraments are only pen drawn and tinged, they are imbued with a sense of atmosphere and corporeity that indicates Italian models. Italy must have inspired also the seven Sacraments with which, as "bas de pages," Jean Pucelle decorated the Dominican Breviary written c. 1325 for Jeanne de Belleville (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. lat. 1048384). Each Sacrament is bracketed between an allegory of a vice and an allegory of the contrary virtue, so that the reader is confronted with a systematic representation of seven Sacraments and seven virtues and vices (see virtues and vices, iconography of). Unfortunately, in the Belleville Breviary an illumination is missing that was intended to take place between the calendar and the Psalter in order to illustrate the concept developed in the iconography of Sacraments. It is described, however, in the "exposition des ymages des figures qui sunt ou Kalendier et ou Sautier" as Christ crucified, the cross erected in the middle of the Garden of Delights, His blood watering the garden through seven rivulets symbolizing the seven Sacraments of the Church. The iconography of the Sacraments in the Belleville Breviary was reproduced in the Breviary of Charles V (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. lat. 1052). The idea of connecting the seven Sacraments with other "septenaries," e.g., the virtues and vices, the gifts of the Holy Spirit or the works of mercy, betrays a scholastic arrangement. Not before scholastic theology undertook to define the Sacraments and to fix their number was it possible for the time-honored quaternity of the Rivers of Paradise to steer a septuple course.

A more intimate relationship between Christ crucified and the Sacraments was materialized by the linking of streams of blood. This is found in the triptych (c. 1400) of Bonifacio Ferrer, a work of the school of Valencia, Spain. This painting (Fine Arts Museum, Valencia), which belongs to the International style and possibly reflects the influence of the Florentine Gherardo Starnina, was executed for the chapel of the Cross in the Carthusian Church of Porta Coeli, near Sagunto. The sacramental crucifixion, represented on the central panel, is accompanied on the proper left by the conversion of St. Paul; and on the proper right, by the Baptism of Christ. The tripartite program follows the teaching of St. John that there are three that bear witness on earth: "the Spirit, and the water, and the blood; and these three are one" (1 Jn 5.78).

Sacraments as the Church. The concept that the "Sacraments out of which the church is built" (St. Augustine, In Psalm. 126.7), associated with the flowing of His blood and the water when one of the soldiers speared the side of Christ crucified (Jn 19.3437), was developed by the commentators on St. John's text (e.g., St. Augustine, In evang. 120; St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Ioh. 84). The notion that the Sacraments derive their efficacy from the Passion of Christ was asserted by prescholastic theologians (Peter Lombard, Sententiae 4.1, De sacramentis ) and by the scholastics (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 3a, 17.1). St. Bonaventure wrote on "Christ crucified the Tree of Life set in the center of Paradise, that is the Church, and, through the channel of the Sacraments, rushing life into the other members of the Corpus Mysticum. " These terms are analogous to those used by the Dominican author of the iconographical program of the Belleville Breviary. It has to be recalled at this point that the expression Corpus Mysticum until the middle of the 12th century referred to the Eucharist, whereas Corpus Christi was applied to the Church. However, a curious reversal of meaning, or chassé-croisé, permuting the terms, occurred c. 1150 [H. de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum (Paris 1949) 88]. This explains why in late Gothic art Christ crucified amid the Sacraments symbolized the Eucharist. On both sides of the cross, the Sacraments that issued out with the blood and the water from the wounded side of Christ were represented enframed within the visible structure of a church, thus giving an architectural embodiment to the Corpus Mysticum.

The painting "The Seven Sacraments," executed toward 1450 in the workshop of Roger van der Weyden (Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp), is the accomplished exponent of the mystical and material link between the sacrifice of Christ and the Sacraments within the framework of the Church. Van der Weyden designed, if he did not actually execute, this nonfolding triptych as the cross section of a church. The huge cross, soaring up to the main vault, is set up at the location reserved since Carolingian religious architecture for the altar of the cross, at the symbolical heart of the church, identified with the eastern part of the nave. In the axis of the crucifixion, at the entrance to the choir, the Host is elevated. The six other rites are performed in the northern and southern aisles. Angels hover above the seven Sacraments, clad in liturgical or symbolical colors: green (Eucharist), white (Baptism), yellow (Confession), red (Penance), violet (Holy Orders), blue (Matrimony), and dark purple (Anointing of the Sick). The angels hold scrolls that are inscribed with texts relating to the symbolism of the Sacraments. The scroll proffered by the angel of Matrimony presents a peculiar interest, because it mentions the betrothal consummated in blood when Sephora, the foreign wife of Moses, circumcised her son with a stone (Ex 4.2426). This Old Testament type alludes to the marriage of Christ with the Church made of the reunion of the church of the Nations and the church of the Circumcision. In the Antwerp painting timelessness and transiency, liturgy and realism, mystery and rite are fused into a unified composition. The Confirmation is administered by Jean Chevrot, Bishop of Tournai, who commissioned the painting. The hands of the two betrothed are wrapped up in the stole of the ministering priest (in 14th-and 15th-century illuminations the two betrothed were sometimes represented with their heads covered by a single veil).

There is from the workshop of Van der Weyden a second composition representing the Sacraments in the manner of the Antwerp triptych. It is the so-called Cambrai altar (Prado Museum, Madrid). The Sacraments are represented there as carvings painted in trompe-l'oeil and set in jambs of a Gothic portal opening on a Crucifixion. The episodes of the Passion are painted, also in trompel'oeil, in the archivolt of the portal. This was probably the work of Vrancke van der Stockt, an assistant of Van der Weyden. Drawings by Vrancke, similar to the trompel'oeil carvings of the Prado panel, are kept in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. They were copied on the orphreys of a cope commissioned by Jacques de Savoie, Count of Romont, for the cathedral of Lausanne and now in the Historical Museum, Bern. The central motif represents the Eucharist as the Consecration of the Host and the Communion of the faithful; and, between, appears the Trinity with the corpse of Christ lying on the lap of the Father, flanked by the Virgin and St. John entreating God. In a Netherlandish drawing of the end of the 15th century, which condenses the same Weydian composition, the cross is set immediately and symbolically under the keystone of the Gothic vault of a church choir (Musée Condé, Chantilly).

Sacraments Related to Crucifixion. The relationship between the Crucifixion and the Sacraments also was a theme carved on a number of stone fonts in Norfolk and Suffolk (late 15th, early 16th century). These fonts have an octagonal vat set on a pedestal, the number eight connoting, as it did in the octagonal early Christian baptisteries, salvation after death in the light of Christ resurrected and, therefore, the first day of a new creation. On these fonts of East Anglia the Confirmation is depicted as administered to infants (according to a decision of the Synod of Exeter, 1287) and Penance as a flagellation scene (cf. also a fresco in the Incoronata church, Naples). A Mosan enameled cross (see illustration), presents an early scheme of the relationship between the cross and the Sacraments of Eucharist (Innocentia and Lamb) and Baptism (Fides and baptismal vat). Each one is personified by an angelic allegory at the extremities of the cross bar. A contemporary Mosan enameled plaque typified baptism in the figure of Naaman the Syrian, who was cured of his leprosy after having bathed seven times in the Jordan by order of Eliseus (British Museum). The Sacraments appear in stained-glass windows of the second half of the 15th century in western and northwestern England. They are connected with Christ crucified or with an image of the Savior crowned with thorns and robed in a purple mantle, by seven streams of blood branching from the five wounds.

The canopy of the pulpit in the cathedral of Vienna (151415), in which are set reliefs representing the Sacraments, is octagonal, like a baptismal font. The resemblance to a vat is again suggested by the double representation of Baptism: the Baptism of Christ and the liturgical rite. The bust portraits of the Fathers of the Latin Church on the four panels of this pulpit recall the authority delegated by Christ to the Church to administer the Sacraments. These figures, masterpieces of expressionist portraiture, were carved by Anton Pilgram, whereas the reliefs of the Sacraments were left to an assistant.

Representation of Sacramental Rites. Italian influence suggested to the painter of Cunegonde's Passionary and to Pucelle the representation of the Sacraments as contemporary liturgical rites. The Sacraments were painted as genre "stories" completed by an allegory of the triumph of the Church by a Sienese artist on a ribbed vault of S. Maria Incoronata (Naples, c. 1335). They were carved with the same straightforward picturesqueness (c. 1350, probably by Alberto Arnoldi) on the campanile of the cathedral of Florence. There the sculptures are set above reliefs of Genesis and the founders of the liberal arts, executed after models by Giotto or by the hand of Andrea Pisano. The Sacraments appear in an allegorical and cosmological context, side by side with representations of the virtues and of the planets. Their figures present a smooth and elongated compactness that, in keeping with their stern sobriety, indicates the influence of Orcagna.

In 1533 the sculptor of Charles V, Jean Mone, carved the Sacraments as rites in seven roundels decorating the alabaster main altar of Notre Dame at Huy. The roundels are framed by eight statuettes carved in the roundthe four Evangelists and the four Fathers of the Latin Churchand the composition is topped by a symbol of the Crucifixion: the Pelican in her piety. Penance was treated by Mone as an allegory: the Church absolving the sinner situated between figures of contrition and sanctification.

Poussin painted two series of Sacraments. One (163442) was for Cassiano dal Pozzo; five paintings are in the collection of the Duke of Rutland, Belvoir Castle; one, Baptism, is in the National Gallery, Washington, DC; Penance, destroyed, is known through an engraving. The other series (164448), for Chantelou, is in the Earl of Ellesmere collection on loan at the National Gallery of Scotland. These paintings echo the definition of the Council of Trent that Christ instituted the Sacraments. Poussin's Baptism, Eucharist, Penance, and Holy Orders are based directly on the life of Christ as told in the Gospel "in such a manner that no interpreter is needed, with the proviso that the Gospel has been read" (Poussin's letter to Chantelou, June 3, 1647). In the Eucharist, Christ and the Apostles are lying on couches around a three-sided table set in a reconstituted Roman triclinium. Such an archeological approach was in line with certain recommendations of the fathers who gathered at Trent. This approach was first attempted in Ciacconius's De Triclinio (1588). The main source of inspiration for Poussin's Sacraments was the work of the Jesuit Louis Richeome (Tableaux sacrés des figures mystiques du très auguste sacrifice et sacrement de l'Eucharistie, 1601). The ambition of Richeome had been to provide an iconographical pattern book for the use of Christian artists similar to the Imagines of Philostratus. Poussin cast his stories of the Sacraments in the most disciplined classical mold when he came to paint the second series, which, compositionally, is based on Raphael, but which, by its austere aura and heroical spirit, announces the spirit of David's painting. The triclinium was used also in the depiction of Penance as the episode of the sinful woman anointing the feet of Jesus. In the Holy Orders painting Poussin exalted the primacy given to the Roman Catholic Church in the person of St. Peter receiving the keys. The Confirmation is based on an episode of the persecution suffered by the Christians of Lyons in 177, and the Anointing of the Sick, in spite of its impersonal atmosphere resulting from the antique costumes and a mood of stoic restraint, alluded to the death of Louis XIII, so that the series was pervaded by a discreet spirit of Gallicanism. It should be pointed out that Poussin's Sacraments were inspired partly, as one may infer, by frescoes painted in the refectory of the novitiate of the Jesuits at S. Andrea al Quirinale, Rome (destroyed 1658), and that consequently, they reflect an important Jesuitic aspect in the art of the Counter Reformation.

Bibliography: e. p. baker, "The Sacraments and the Passion in Medieval Art," The Burlington Magazine 66 (1935) 8189. l. becherucci, "I relievi dei sacramenti nel campanile del duomo di Firenze," Arte 30 (1927) 214223. a. c. fryer, "On Fonts with Representations of the Seven Sacraments," The Archaeological Journal 59 (1902) 1766. a. louis, L'Église Notre-Dame de Hal (Saint-Martin) (Brussels 1936). r. de marignan, "Les Sept Sacrements 'convertis en sept autres histoires' par Nicolas Poussin," Revue des questions historiques 63 (November 1935) 7399. k. morand, Jean Pucelle (Oxford 1962), cf. m. r. james, Descriptive Catalogue of the Second Series of 50 manuscripts in the Collection of Henry Yates Thompson (Cambridge, England 1902) 365368. j. newwirth, "Zur Geschichte der Miniature-Malerei in Böhmen," Mittheilungen der Kaiserlichen und Königlichen Centralcommission, NS 11 (1885) 1733. p. rolland, "Het drieluik der Zeven Sacramenten van Rogier van der Weyden," Annuaire du Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts d'Anvers (194247) 95ff, cf. e. panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, 2 v. (Cambridge, MA 1953) 282285, and p. wescher, "The Drawings of Vrancke van der Stoct (The Master of the Cambrai Altar)," Old Master Drawings 13 (1938) 15. g. m. rushforth, "Seven Sacraments Compositions in English Mediaeval Art," Antiquaries Journal 9 (1929) 83100. i. schlosser, Die Kanzel und der Orgelfuss zu St. Stefan in Wien (Vienna 1925). j. vanuxem, "Les Tableaux sacrés de Richeome et l'iconographie de l'Eucharistie chez Poussin," Colloque Nicolas Poussin (Paris 1960) 151162. a. venturi, Storia dell' arte Italiana, v.5 (Milan 1907) 638649. p. verdier, "Un Monument inédit de l'art mosan du XIIe siècle, la Crucifixion symbolique de Walters Art Gallery," Revue Belge d'archéologie et d'histoire de l'art 30 (1961) 115175. j. wilpert, Fractio Panis. La Plus ancienne représentation du sacrifice eucharistique à la Capella Greca découverte et expliquée (Paris 1896), also in a German edition.

[p. verdier]

About this article

Sacraments, Iconography of

Updated About content Print Article