Faith through Art: A painting designed to be worthy of the Eucharist
By Norman Farmer
In 1453, Canon Jean de Montagnac of the Carthusian Charterhouse at Villeneuve-lez-Avignon commissioned the leading painter of France, Enguerrand Quarton, to compose an altarpiece worthy to accompany the Eucharist at the altar of St. Agricol Church. In 26 terse articles, Canon Montagnac listed the several dozen subjects to be shown in this image –– and all appear in the finished icon. However, in making the painting a unique collaboration between priest and painter, theologian and artist, Montagnac specified that “Master Enguerrand will demonstrate his skills in designing the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary and do his best for the rest.” Quarton’s “best” would become one of the most acclaimed and compelling masterpieces of late medieval Europe, while the contract itself is the most detailed to survive for any medieval work of art.
In Article 1, for example, Montagnac says simply that “Heaven must be represented and in this Paradise the Holy Trinity must be seen without showing any difference between Father and Son; the Holy Spirit must be represented as a dove with Our Lady in front, displayed to Master Enguerrand’s liking. The Holy Trinity will be putting the crown on Our Lady’s head.” However, the visible splendors that blossom upon this vast 7 foot by 6 foot painting express the mysteries of the divine and the created world as words could never do.
Taking his cue from the words of the Sanctus at the beginning of the Consecration, “Heaven and earth are full of thy glory,” Quarton reveals, as in a vision, the substance that is implicit in the prayers of Holy Mass that prepare us for “The mystery of faith” and our own proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection. Through dramatic visual effects of size and scale in the transcendent grandeur of the Trinity and the Blessed Virgin, then plunging downward along the vertical axis of the Crucifixion into the finite topography of the created world where the horizontal course of salvation history runs from Jerusalem to Rome through the mystery of the Crucifixion, and then from Golgatha (Mt 27:33) into the realm of the afterlife (Mt 25:31-46; Lk 13:23-30) –– the priest and the painter in tandem awaken our wonder and awe at the manifold orders of the universe, spiritual and temporal.
Guided by Jesus’ promise that “Whoever sees me sees the one who sent me” (Jn 12:45) and by the words of St. Paul that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), Quarton “depicts the invisible” as Father and Son alike gaze with supernatural intensity upon “the crown of Life” (Rv 2:10) that the Three-in-One solemnly place upon “Our Lady’s head.” She herself evokes our prayer, “Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary ...”
Then, to signify the eternal “spiration” of the Holy Spirit — a divine Person — from Father and Son alike, the wings of the dove lightly brush their lips as the Holy Spirit — incarnate throughout the visible breadth and depth of this icon — proceeds into the hearts of all gathered before this altar to share the Supper of the Lamb. Thus does a visible icon composed according to the dynamics of praise and prayer become worthy to accompany the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The Trinity and Virgin are enthroned on clouds amidst cherubim and are surrounded by the blazing seraphim envisioned by Isaiah (6:1-7), “crying one to the other, Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” They are venerated by St. Gabriel Archangel (left), the patriarchs and prophets (including John the Baptist), then martyr saints, the sainted among the estates of the world and the innocents. Opposite, they are adored by St. Michael Archangel with the apostles, popes (most prominently Gregory the Great, who, on the Roman side of the natural world below celebrates the Mass of Our Suffering Lord), then female saints and the estates of men and women, and innocents.
“I reflect,” St. Catherine of Siena writes, “that when our memory is filled with the blood of Christ crucified, our understanding is irresistibly drawn to gaze into our memory ... Then at once our will follows our understanding, loving and longing for what the eye of our understanding has seen.” Such was Canon Montagnac’s purpose from the beginning.