Sub signis visibilibus”: Visual Theology in Trent’s Decrees on the Eucharist
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Sub signis visibilibus
Visual Theology in Trent’s Decrees on the Eucharist

Things are seldom what they seem. One might apply this ad-age to the Council of Trent (1545–63), the supposed bulwark of dogmatic orthodoxy for Catholics and hallmark of papist heresy for Protestants. Although historians have attempted to contextualize the council, polemic continues to plague its place in history. Such tension is particularly acute with respect to Trent’s decrees on the Eucharist. Here the tendency to pit the “Tridentine” vision against that of the Second Vatican Council erupts into theological trench warfare spread across a liturgist’s minefield.1 Rather than wander into this unfortunate intra-Catholic imbroglio, this article turns to the decrees themselves, appropriating Trent’s Eucharistic vision on its own terms and in its historical context. However, this is no simple task. Eleven years separate two decrees on the Eucharist: the 1551 decree of Session XIII, which concerns the Real Presence and the 1562 decree of Session XXII, which deals with the sacrifice of the Mass. Consequently, many historians and theologians tend to read the decrees separately, heralding Trent as either the triumph of scholasticism or the ossification of an antiquated theology of expiation.2 Nevertheless, if one reads the decrees together—as the [End Page 145] council fathers intended—a theological unity emerges that defies such neat academic categories.

Attempting to move beyond a fragmented analysis of the subject, this paper argues that both decrees embody a renewed emphasis on the visible sacramentality of the Eucharist, that is, the Eucharist as making Christ and his sacrifice present to the world sub signis visibilibus—under visible signs. Although “visible” might denote a variety of sensory concepts, I maintain that the decrees’ twofold stress on the permanence of Christ’s Eucharistic presence and the timeless act of Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass come together to form a particularly visual theology of the sacrament as Christ’s tangible yet eternal presence amid the ordinary life of mere mortals. In order to grasp this visual theology, I analyze Trent’s two decrees on the Eucharist in light of their historical context. Likewise I also pose (albeit briefly) possible historical manifestations of this theology for further consideration and illumination.

The Decree of 1551: Real Presence

Commencing our study with Trent’s first decree on the Eucharist, one immediately finds the crux of its theology in the opening lines of the text. “First of all, the holy council teaches and openly and plainly professes that after the consecration of bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is truly, really and substantially contained in the august sacrament of the Holy Eucharist under the appearance of those sensible things.”3 What at first glance appears straightforward masks a complex, tumultuous history of theological debate.

As is true for any room full of theologians, method is everything. According to Hubert Jedin, Marcello Cardinal Cervini, the leader of the proceedings, set out to “draw a line of demarcation” between Catholic and Protestant teachings.4 Protestant theses were compiled into canons for condemnation. This method, Jedin notes, sought to avoid intra-Catholic controversies, such that no one scholastic [End Page 146] school triumphed in the end.5 The “end” of the council, however, was more than a decade away when the council engaged the topic of the Eucharist in 1547, shortly after its milestone decree on justification. To form a Catholic response to Protestants, theologians focused on the ancient practice of Viaticum (as supporting Eucharistic presence outside of the Mass) and, more than anything else, John 6 in relation to the Real Presence and concomitance.6 Likewise, the use of the word “transubstantiation” was reaffirmed on the grounds that Nicaea also needed a “new” and unbiblical term against Arius (i.e., homoousios).7 These issues would come to mold the final decree four years later.8 In March 1547, the council relocated to Bologna due to a plague, and in September, Pope Paul III suspended the council indefinitely.9 It was not until 1551 that the council reconvened in Trent and finished its work on the Real Presence. After the council tabled...


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