The Hidden Manna: The Real Presence in Art and Culture

To ask what place the doctrine of the real presence in the Eucharist has in the Western tradition is first to ask for some distinctions, and secondly, to send us off on a hunt.

In one sense, there is scarcely any other tenet of Catholicism that can be said to be closer to the center of traditional Western sensibility (up to, let us say, the 18th century), unless, of course, it be the image of the Mother and Child, or the Crucifixion. Certainly these two icons, and the events they bespeak, can claim places in the very front rank of Western vision and sensibility for well over a thousand years. But the Mass, with its supposition that the bread and wine are indeed changed miraculously into the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, forms the backcloth against which virtually the whole of the late classical epoch, the Medieval centuries, and the Renaissance proceeded. If we are speaking of the Western tradition, we commonly include in that immense category the intellectual, social, artistic, and even political aspects of European civilization, drawing lines of demarcation as we wish to limit our discussion.

Distinctions with a Difference

One distinction would come into play depending on whether we wish to narrow our topic to the doctrine of transubstantiation (which itself would be the particular manner in which the Roman Church has defined the mystery of the Real presence), or whether we refer in a far more general way to the phenomenon of the Mass. This latter, of course, is ubiquitous, as it were.

Whether it is explicitly mentioned or not, it is there. From The Dream of the Rood to Roland to the lays of Marie de France, from early Arthurian traditions through Malory, from Chaucer to Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh, the Mass is assumed as axiomatically as are the rising and the setting of the sun. And it scarcely needs to be argued that this assumption of the ubiquity of the Mass is virtually coeval and coterminous with the doctrine of the real presence. In fact, herein lies the difficulty in pulling out with tweezers explicit testimony to the doctrine from widespread sources that help to constitute “the tradition”: No one bothers to say, “And by the way, just so we have it all straight, the liturgical action that I mention in passing in my story or my painting or my mural or my chapel naturally assumes the full-blown doctrine of transubstantiation.” To labor the point like that would be analogous to a poet casting his net all around astronomy every time he wanted to speak of the morn in russet mantle clad. It would be gratuitous.

And again, some distinctions need to be drawn in order to make our topic manageable. Do we wish to speak of all the components that make up the tradition, from history to philosophy to art to architecture to music to piety to social structures to poetry and narrative? If so, we are asking for the kind of universal portmanteau of all knowledge at which we moderns balk. We cannot undertake all of that. Three cheers for Francis Bacon, but he bogged down 400 years ago, and the explosion of knowledge since his time has now made his task seem pettifogging.

A reasonably wide-ranging hunt through the centuries reveals to us soon enough that, apart from strict theological writing, “devotional” writing, and hymnody, we will not find the particular doctrine of the real presence articulated. Until the Reformation, of course, the doctrine could be assumed: one may canvass the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, Justin, Irnaeus, Cyprian, et al., and find the doctrine explicitly articulated. In other words, the notion that the bread and the wine in the Mass become far more than themselves during the action is not a “late” doctrine. A very few groups, rather baldly identified as heretical by the Church, clung to what we would now call a Zwinglian view (i.e., that the bread and wine remain what they are and are to be perceived as aids to memory). With the Reformation, of course, the distinctions suddenly proliferate. What, exactly, was Luther’s view? Lutherans demur over the word “consubstantiation,” which non-Lutherans commonly apply to the Lutheran view. And Calvinists insist that Calvin had “a high view” of the Sacrament, while also having to admit that, for good or ill, the net effect of Calvin’s teaching was to move the Eucharist very, very far from the center of Christian vision and discipline. The Church of England, with archetypal English blur, speaks of “the real presence,” but somehow both Low Church (Zwinglian) and Anglo-Catholic (transubstantiationalist) Anglicans manage to row along with reasonable equanimity through the reeds and cattails of the 39 articles on this point (as on many, many others, may it be remarked).

If we wish to turn from specifically ecclesiological sources to evidence lurking in the general, cultural, tradition of the West, we will find the going sparse.

The Search for Sources

The church buildings and the great cathedrals, of course, testify silently but eloquently to the doctrine with their tabernacles. Justin, Cyprian, Tertullian, and Basil evince the doctrine (we are, of course, back on strictly ecclesiological turf here, but with the church buildings and cathedrals we find ourselves on the border between church and culture). On this same frontier we find all the bejewelled and golden patens and chalices, which were not wrought to hold mere bread and wine, we may be sure. Again, these are ecclesial vessels, but the museum curators like to get hold of them, too. When we think of painting, no doubt the first one to loom in our minds is Leonardo DaVinci’s “The Last Supper.”

Naturally, both Zwinglians and papists will want to take their shoes off in front of this crumbling wall, but the painting proves nothing. We may be quite certain that Leonardo himself had St. John, Chapter Six, somewhere in his consciousness as he painted, however. The Last Supper was nothing if it was not the institution of the sacred mystery that forms the central nerve of all Catholic vision and piety.

What about Jan van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” in Ghent? The blood that spills from the Lamb’s bosom into a chalice would seem to leave little doubt as to how the artist understood the liturgy, both earthly and heavenly. In that cup is to be found the Blood of the Lamb, and not merely the fruit of the vine.

A similar assumption (not amounting to proof of the doctrine) may be described in every representation of the Mass. To be acquainted in only the most rudimentary way with the artist’s subject is to know that it is not mere bread over which the priest is bent and in the presence of which kings, bishops, dukes, and their ladies bow low.

We find ourselves similarly teased when it comes to literature (if, that is, we are rummaging for proofs). In most cases, we have to admit that what we have is an undoubted assumption at work in the author’s lines. In Beowulf there is nothing at all. In the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood we are drawn most poignantly into the mystery of the Crucifixion, but not into the Mass. Gawain is most punctilious about arriving somewhere—anywhere—on Christmas Eve in order to assist at Mass and begs the Virgin to guide him thence. We may be certain that a Zwinglian view would not be spurring him forward with such ardor.

Chaucer supplies us with only the slimmest of pickings. His Pardoner has, among the outrages perpetrated by the swilling, debauched rogues in his tale, that “Oure blessed Lordes body they totere” (tear). Have they desecrated the Sacrament? It would appear so. In their oaths, “Cristes blessed body (they) all torent.” Clearly the reference is not to the mere product of the local bakery.

The Arthurian saga, especially the parts of it that deal with Parzifal (Percival), understands the Graal as a most holy, even a divine, cup. “The Achievement of the Graal,” won only by Bors, Percival, and Galahad, and perhaps the penitent Lancelot, refers to one’s being vouchsafed the vision of the Graal being employed at a Mass. All this titanic drama does not concern a mere wineglass.

One would expect to find, in the Anglican metaphysical poets of the 17th century—Donne, Herbert, and certainly Crashaw (who eventually “went over” to Rome)—poetry that bespeaks the doctrine of the Real presence. But no, oddly. The closest we get might be in Herbert’s “Altar,” but the controlling conceit here is the analogy between the stones of the altar and Herbert’s stony heart.

The 18th century and the Victorians were scarcely occupied with such topics. Jane Austen, Fielding, Trollope, Balzac, Stendahl, and even Tolstoy and Dostoevski do not even approach the precincts. However, there is one stark exception to the general oblivion as to the Sacred Mysteries. In Robert Browning’s “The Bishop Orders His Tomb in St. Praxed’s Church,” we find the good prelate’s thoughts running thus: “And then how I shall lie through centuries,/And hear the blessed mutter of the Mass,/and see God made and eaten all day long.” A most robust doctrine of the real presence.

Before we push on into the 20th century, we should double back—way back—and at least acknowledge the great eucharistic hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas (not to mention many other such hymns by St. Rabanus Maurus, St. Joseph the Hymnographer, and Venantius Fortunatus). Hymnody is an infinitely problematical region when it comes to cultural discussions, and questions as to whether these lyrics are genuine poetry elude all efforts at an answer. On the other hand, it would seem that no account of Western tradition and culture can pretend to be entirely complete without at least men¬tioning Thomas’s “O Salutaris Hostia,” “Pange Lingua,” and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum,” all of them gathered under the title, “Adoro Te Devote.” W. H. Auden used to argue that hymns are generally execrable poetry (they are), but that “versified dogma” is the point at which they most nearly approach this lofty category.

Strange Bedfellows

There is one freakish witness to the doctrine of the real presence in a tale that one blushes even to mention at all in this connection. I speak of Dracula. Readers will recall that the Host is one of the talismans by which vampires may be kept at bay. Again, your Zwinglian loaves would, presumably, turn out to be quite impotent when it comes to vampires.

Coventry Patmore, G. M. Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and others from whom we might expect to hear something on this point offer very little, in spite of their orthodox Catholicism (Anglican Catholicism in Eliot’s case, but certainly full-blown transubstantiationalism nonetheless). Graham Greene, in spite of his shaky stance vis-a-vis the Church, jumps right in in The End of the Affair, and has, for the central dilemma of the novel, Major Scobie’s self-damnation threatening because he is afraid not to go to Communion with his wife while he is in a state of mortal sin (adultery). The novel offers no apology for setting up a situation that presupposes the doctrine of the real presence, all the while knowing that only a minority of its readers will at all share such an anachronistic notion.

In Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, we have young Francis Marion Tarwater, who is in full flight from God, pausing outside of a “tabernacle” (double-entendre) on a Sunday evening where a Pentecostal meeting is going on. God is in there, is the clear implication. And again, he looks wistfully at the bread in a bakery window, with the reader acutely aware that the poor boy is starved for the sacraments of the Church. In another scene, a very large woman (Holy Church, let’s face it) offers him a purple drink for his refreshment.

Evelyn Waugh may be the modern author who most pointedly causes a narrative to turn on the real presence. Charles Ryder, the agnostic narrator in Brideshead Revisited, makes a brief visit to the private chapel in the palace where his Oxford friend Sebastian lives with his family. Charles, being an architectural painter, notices the appointments of the chapel, including the tabernacle, but of course this makes no dent in his agnosticism. At the end of the tale, with infinite finesse and tact, Waugh lets us know that Charles has been received into the Church, when he kneels (many years later) in front of this same tabernacle and offers “an ancient prayer, newly learned.” Aha! we say: Charles has been catechized!

So. The doctrine of the real presence in Western tradition: There may be an elegant irony here. The miracle, unlike those obtained at the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, is a hidden one. The tabernacle is closed, silent, and unprepossessing. Appropriately, it maintains these qualities as it carries on its appointed task, century after century, of housing the Living God in the midst of the hurly-burly of history.