‘The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament’ by Raphael (1509 – 1510) PART 2

 ‘The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament’ by Raphael (1509 – 1510) PART 2

 Breathing the spirit of the Renaissance, faith, theology, science and grace, Raphael’s Disputation of the Holy Sacrament is a pledge towards human knowledge and divine wisdom. His complex composition fits the semi-circular wall with utmost simplicity. Notice the golden dome of heaven, the glorious aureole of Christ, and the halo of the Holy Spirit! Each Person of the Trinity descends in radiant circles. In a climactic moment they culminate in the Sacred Host (circular) which is placed within a ring shaped pyx.

The circle, since antiquity, is universally associated with Infinity. Raphael through his painting demonstrates the absolute wisdom of the Infinite God present in the Holy Eucharist. But can a finite mortal comprehend this infinite mystery? Most definitely, the answer is no. Raphael, in the third realm, attempts to display the efforts taken by the finite intellect to grasp the nature of things beyond their senses. He places the vanishing point at the Monstrance that carries the Sacred Host. Thematically accurate, it is the Sacred Host that serves as a mediation between the finite and the Infinite.

The Monstrance is placed on a rectangular stone. Symbolically this can be interpreted as faith placed on the Cornerstone which is Christ Himself. It also serves as an attribute to faith placed on a rock on which Christ built His Church i.e. Peter and his successors. Thus, Raphael inscribes the words ‘Pope Julius II, Pontifex Maximus’ upon the frontal of the altar. Julius II was the Pope who commissioned the painting in 1509. The inscription is surrounded by a mandala of knots, yet another representation of Infinity.

Surrounding the Blessed Sacrament are the primary figures of the Fathers of the Church. Each of them display a unique expression as they dwell on the Word made Flesh.  To our left is St. Jerome, absorbed in deep thought. Next to him is St. Gregory who affectionately looks up to the Sacrament of Love. To our right is St. Ambrose who beholds the Trinity in an ecstatic thrill and besides him is the famous St. Augustine, seen dictating the doctrine of faith to a young writer.

The four doctors of the Church

The two figures in the background can be identified as St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Justin, the Martyr. Both of them served as apologist and the doctors of the Church. St Ignatius was the first to use the word ‘Eucharist’ while St. Justin the Martyr formulated the dogma of the Real Presence. Their gestures imitate those of Aristotle and Plato from the School of Athens.

Beyond this arrangement are a throng of individuals. Let’s begin from our left. The first figure that we can spot is the ideal Renaissance youth in the foreground of the painting. Draped with grace and poise, he directs the earthy (including us) towards the Altar. The figure before him, leaning against the balustrade, is rumoured to be Bramante, the Italian architect who designed the plan for St. Peter’s Basilica. Surrounding them are a host of individuals exhibiting a range of gestures. They turn, ponder, bewilder, enquire, crane their necks, take notes and bury their heads in books seeking to comprehend the mystical vision that they behold.

The ideal Renaissance man and Bramante

To our right are the dignified. The most distinguished among them is the figure in red who sports a laurel wreath. Undoubtedly, he represents Dante, the major Italian poet of the late Middle Ages. In front of him stands the imposing figure of Pope Sixtus IV (1414 – 1484). Between the two brilliant doctors of the Church, namely St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure is yet another Pope. His identity is subject to a variety of interpretations.

The group on the right

The painting ain’t an anecdote of the early ages. It bears witness to the present scenario as well. The characters of the painting change; we take their places as we journey onwards in discovering, accepting and cherishing our faith. The only unchanging phenomenon is undoubtedly the Mystery itself.

It is through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that the Word (Infinite) descends from heaven and through the sacrament of the Eucharist (celebrated every single day), it spreads throughout mankind (finite), be it laymen, clergymen, bishops or even the Popes. That is the essence of the Eucharist, it has no favourites. It invites each one of us to partake in this mystery of Christ present (Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity) in the Eucharist. It calls us to go beyond knowledge and our feeble senses into the sphere of faith so as to truly accept, receive and become a part of the Body of Christ!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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