By Lucinda Herrick
As you sit in quiet contemplation with our Lord in the Adoration Chapel, you may have wondered about the marvelous art spanning the wall. Titled The Disputation of the Holy Eucharist, it is a replica of a fresco by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael; the original adorns one wall of the papal library in the Vatican.
Painted between 1508-1511, The Disputation of the Holy Eucharist depicts the triumph of Christianity over philosophical ideas of the ancient Greeks.
Raphael has divided the scene between heaven and earth – the Church Triumphant above and the Church Militant below. In heaven we see the Holy Trinity, with Christ the True Sacrifice displaying His wounds, central with God the Father above and the dove of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s feet. These are in direct line with the Holy Eucharist on the altar below. In doing so, the artist is emphasizing the truth of the Trinity, “the most fundamental and essential teaching in the hierarchy of faith” (CCC234), a doctrine which cannot be explained or understood by intellect alone (philosophy), but is revealed in the true, real presence of our Lord in the Eucharist.
The Blessed Virgin Mary, in blue, typically sits on Christ’s right, in accordance with the Jewish tradition of having the Queen Mother sit at the right hand of the king (See 1 Kings 2:19). Pope Pius X confirms this tradition in Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum by declaring “Mary sitteth at the right hand of her Son.” St. John the Baptist is seated on Christ’s left. His life was spent leading people to Christ, and in art this is commonly expressed by his gesture of pointing toward Christ.
Saints flank either side of Christ: left to right, are St. Peter, holding keys to heaven and earth, Adam, St. John the Evangelist, King David, St. Laurence, Judas Maccabees, St. Stephen, Moses with the Ten Commandments tablets, St. James the elder, Abraham and St. Paul, holding a sword. These, along with clouds of angels, complete the celestial scene of the Church Triumphant.
The Church Militant fills the lower half of the scene as they flank the altar bearing the Holy Eucharist. Within the group, Raphael depicts the four Doctors of the Church: Pope Gregory I, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose. Other personages include Plato, holding his Timaeus, Aristotle, holding his Ethics, Socrates, Heraclitus, Diogenes, Euclid, Zoroaster and Ptolemy. All are engaged in vigorous discourse on the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The scene is a depiction of what Catholics believe is the Communion of Saints – all who belong to the Church are one through Christ.
Raphael emphasizes that what happens in heaven also happens on earth. The Virgin Mary presses her hand to her breast, while below on earth, a woman kneels beside the altar, her hands in the same position. Just as St. John points to Christ in heaven, so St. Jerome also raises his arm toward the Eucharist and the heavens. On both planes, the Holy of Holies is the central focus as animated discussions are held and all try to grasp the concept of Christ in the Eucharist. This does not mean they cannot agree on whom or what the Eucharist is; rather Raphael shows us that there are some things we can never fully understand. These are theological mysteries: the Trinity, transubstantiation and the Holy Eucharist. They are supernatural truths that can only be contemplated through the eyes of the mind with the gift of faith.