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Book Review: Art and the Eucharist

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A fairly large proportion of the artistic masterpieces which line the walls of our galleries and museums are out of place. They were created, not for the scrutiny of connoisseurs or the fleeting interest of tourists, but for the prayerful gaze of worshippers: they were made for churches.

The link between art and the Eucharist is, then, at least one of location. Yet church art is not mere decoration: the frescoes, mosaics and paintings which we find in our churches are meant to say something about the Christian mystery. It is this theologically formative function of art to which Dr Eileen Kane turns her attention in Art and the Eucharist, taking inspiration from Pope John Paul’s Letter to Artist: ‘In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art’.

The book is short – only 85 pages – and each chapter covers a different Eucharistic theme in art: ‘The Last Supper’, ‘Prefigurations of the Eucharist’, ‘Sacrament and Sacrifice’, ‘The Altarpiece of the Lamb’, ‘The Eucharist in the Church’ and ‘Stay With Us, Lord’. In the second of these, Kane looks at the ‘Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament’ by the Flemish painter Dieric Bouts: the large central panel depicts the Last Supper, but it is surrounded by depictions of Old Testament ‘types’ (prefigurations) of the Eucharistic event – Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine (Genesis 14), the eating of the Passover meal (Exodus 12), the gathering of the manna in the desert (Exodus 16) and the feeding of Elijah (1 Kings 19). Kane explains the theological connections, and Bouts’ artistic choices, clearly and simply.

Less traditional works of art are also considered. Kane offers a moving analysis of Dalí’s ‘The Sacrament of the Last Supper’. The apostles bow like ‘monks’, provoking a similarly reverent attitude in the viewer of the painting; the scene is embraced by outstretched arms, not yet bearing their wounds; the translucency and strangeness of the scene lend it a timelessness ‘which suggests that the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion which followed it, are still taking place now and will continue to take place into the future’.

Kane’s book is valuable simply for its lucid exposition of key Eucharistic artworks, but what is most memorable about this little book, for me at least, is the way it links the very endeavour of art with the Eucharistic mystery – both involve, in different ways, the elevation of the ordinary. Kane expands powerfully on this connection, which is at the heart of this wonderful book: ‘At the Mass, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the bread and wine, ‘fruits of the earth and work of human hands’, are offered to the ‘Lord God of all creation’, and at the Consecration become the Body and Blood of Christ himself. That is the greatest and most sacred mystery of all. But when, in a painting, earth and eggs, plants and metals become an image of Christ or of his mother, that too is a mystery, though of course a lesser one. In that lesser mystery lies the special affinity that exists between art and the Eucharist’.

(Art and the Eucharist, by Dr Eileen Kane, is published by Veritas.)