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  • Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art by Roger S. Wieck
  • Dianne Phillips
Roger S. Wieck
Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art
New York: Morgan Library and Museum in association with Scala Art Publishers, 2014
79pages. Paperback. $14.95.

This slender but rich volume reproduces in color the manuscript illuminations and explanatory labels that constituted an exhibition organized by Roger Wieck at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York in the summer of 2013. The exhibition included 59 manuscript illuminations ranging from the late twelfth through the sixteenth centuries and four illustrations from printed books of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Most of the images [End Page 228] were produced in northern Europe and date to the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. Although the text that accompanies each illustration is very brief and directed to a general audience, the book provides a surprisingly comprehensive compendium of imagery relevant to the theology, liturgy, and spirituality of the Eucharist in the later middle ages. Unlike typical exhibition catalogues, it does not discuss artistic style and only rarely refers to patronage, instead focusing on the subject matter and religious meaning of the images.

Given the parameters of the exhibition and the imagined audience, the single page of text introducing each of the six sections and the short descriptions (typically 8–10 lines of text) that accompany each illumination are clear and concise, although scholars of theology and liturgy will likely find them elementary and may object to Wieck’s use of “True” rather than “Real” Presence. The introduction to the exhibition provides a one-page explanation of the Eucharist and notes the important thirteenth-century events—the doctrine of transubstantiation articulated at Lateran IV and the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi—that prompted the efflorescence of eucharistic imagery in late medieval art.

The six sections into which the illuminations are assigned demonstrate the range of the imagery. Section I, “Institution of the Eucharist,” includes representations of scriptural subjects pertinent to the Mass, especially the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, and the Crucifixion, as well as the devotional type of Christ as the Man of Sorrows and the allegorical image of the Mystic Winepress. Section II, “Celebration of the Mass,” includes illuminations that depict various moments in the Mass such as the elevation of the Host, the administration of Communion, and other less familiar images such as a c. 1520 altar card to be propped up against the back of the altar as an aid to the celebrant. Section III, “The Eucharist and the Old Testament,” focuses on typological images, including illustrations from the Speculum humanae salvationis and the Concordantiae caritatis.

In Section IV, “Domestic Devotion to the Eucharist,” Wieck gathers illuminations that manifest what he characterizes as the late medieval desire for “ocular consumption” of the Eucharist as a substitute for infrequent reception. He asserts that annual reception of Communion by the laity was customary. However, annual reception was a minimum requirement prescribed at Lateran [End Page 229] IV, and recent scholars have suggested that urban laity received more frequently. In Section IV, the illuminations are all from books of Hours and include generic representations of the Mass and the exposition of the Eucharist in a tabernacle and monstrance, as well as a graphic devotional image whose close-up vertically-oriented view of the wound in Christ’s side that is placed beside the Imago pietatis is interpreted as an example of devotion to the lance wound as the site from which the Church was born, thus accounting for its vaginal appearance.

Section V includes illuminations related to the Feast of Corpus Christi, the most dramatic of which is a panoramic cityscape of the Corpus Christi procession of Pope Paul III by the Renaissance artist, Giulio Clovio. In Section VI, “Eucharistic Miracles,” the illuminations date from the late fourteenth through sixteenth centuries and most represent the miraculous bleeding Host of Dijon given to Philip of Burgundy by Pope Eugenius IV in 1433. The introduction to this last section notes the increase in Eucharistic miracles in the late middle ages and their connection to the persecution of Jews. However, the illuminations throughout the...


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