‘The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament’ by Raphael (1509 – 1510) PART 1
As Catholics all around the world queue and walk up the aisle to receive Holy Communion at times doubt, delusion or absolute indifference with regards to the Sacred Host plagues one’s mind. Is it indeed the Body of Christ? Is it the actual flesh of a man who lived 2000 years ago? Or is it symbolic of Christ? What does our Church profess? And what do I believe in?
The disputation buried in our heads is mirrored by the disputation encountered in the painting. However, it is important to note that the word ‘disputation’ does not necessarily mean ‘disagreement’ Far from negativity and division, it signifies an animated discussion to discover and enhance our understanding of the truth. In a way it can be considered a medium of prayer and praise.
The painting is executed by the Renaissance artist Raphael between 1509 and 1510 in today what is called the Stanze di Raffaello or the Raphael Rooms. However in the 15th century, this room in the Vatican Palace was called the Stanza della Segnatura. It was to serve as the library of Pope Julius II (1443 – 1513) who commissioned the painting.
The thematic source of the painting lies in the vaulted ceiling. Within decorated roundels are personified the four intellectual faculties that organize human mind. These are Philosophy, Theology, Jurisprudence and Poetry. The essence of each of these faculties is adequately elaborated in the walls below them. Beneath Theology is painted the ‘Disputation of the Holy Sacrament.’
A painted manifestation of the theological truth, the painting dwells on the basic tenet of Christian faith: the Transubstantiation. This doctrine professes that while the outer appearance of bread and wine remain the same, the inner reality of the substance changes. Christ is believed to be completely present, (i.e. Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity) in the Eucharist.
Along the central axis of the composition is depicted the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Their descending presence culminates in the Eucharist displayed in a monstrance placed on the altar. The painting is neatly divided into three realms. In the top most realm is featured God the Father, the Creator of all things visible and invisible. He is depicted holding the world in His hands while a host of angels sing to Him the unending hymns of glory.
Next, in a central dominating position, is God the Son. Seated on a throne of clouds, He gazes benevolently at the viewer. An august aureole encompasses His divine aura. To Christ right is seated John the Baptist. He is identified by his traditional iconography, pointing out to Christ as the path to salvation. To Christ left is seated the Blessed Virgin Mary, the perfect intercessor and mediator.
Emanating from this arrangement is the Third Person of the Trinity i.e. the Holy Spirit. Descending in the form of a dove, it is flanked by angels holding the Gospels inspired by the Spirit. While the angels holding the Gospel of Matthew, Mark and Luke face downwards, the one holding the Gospel of John looks to his right at the Evangelist himself. Enthroned on a cloud, the young apostle is engrossed in deep thought as he pens down the Word of God. Serene and content, his posture recalls the words, ‘Blessed are they who are called to the Supper of the Lamb’ (Rev 19:9). Poised to his left is the famous King David. He is portrayed playing His lute and singing psalms in marvel at the fulfilment of scriptures.
In their company are seated the other prophets and saints. This includes St. Peter followed by Adam, St. John, King David, St Francis of Assisi and a less clear saint with a turbaned head. To Christ left are St. Paul followed by Abraham, St. James, Moses and St. Stephen, the first martyr. These are the blessed who have contemplated on the Most High and lived the mystery of faith in their earthly life. Each of them serve as channels that lead us to the greater revelation of the Supreme Being.
Notice the stigmata on the left hand of St. Francis of Assisi. The stigmata is a sign of his fervent, faithful and transcending love that leads to God. His other hand points towards the fair, ideal, Renaissance youth who leads the earthly beings towards the altar of God. The terrestrial sphere is infused with festivity, monumentality, commotion and solemnity. Each figure is vigorously detailed in harmony with others. Do these mortal beings represent historical personalities? What does the chaos signify and how does it affect our faith?
To know more please read Part 2 of the article.
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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