The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in Catholic Art

According to the new English edition of the Roman Missal, the priest, in the introductory rite, addresses the congregation as follows: “Brethren (Brothers and sisters), let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” The term, “sacred mysteries” in reference to the Mass is of ancient origin as is the “breaking of the bread,” or the “the Lord’s supper.” All of these terms refer to the events of Our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection, starting on Holy Thursday with the Last Supper, His death on Good Friday, and His coming forth from the tomb on Easter morn. While the Protestant denominations have downgraded or denied the sacrificial nature of the sacred mysteries, retaining only the idea of “the Lord’s supper” as a symbolic memorial, the Catholic Church has steadfastly upheld the “Real Presence” of Christ’s very body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharistic species as well as the sacrificial nature of the Mass. As stated in the venerable Baltimore catechism, The Mass is the Sacrifice of the New Law in which Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers Himself to God in an unbloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine.”

In order to grasp the sacrificial nature of the Catholic Mass, however, one must first look to the ritual “holocausts” of the Old Testament. Although the ritual holocausts of the Jewish People were multitudinous, as listed in the Book of Leviticus, the sacrificial offerings of Abel, Abraham, and the Passover ordained by God through Moses are of the highest significance.

For the Christian, however, as eloquently explained by St. Alphonsus Ligouri, Doctor of the Church, all the holocausts set forth in the Old Testament are fulfilled in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.

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All the sacrifices of the old law were figures of the sacrifice of our divine Redeemer… the sacrifices of peace…the sacrifices of thanksgiving … the sacrifices of expiation … and finally, the sacrifices of impetration. … Jesus Christ has, then, paid the price of our redemption in the Sacrifice of the Cross. But he wishes that the fruit of the ransom given should be applied to us in the Sacrifice of the Altar. … Hence the Roman Catechism teaches that the Sacrifice of the Mass does not serve only to praise God and thank him for the gifts he has granted us, but is the true propitiatory sacrifice, by which we obtain from the Lord pardon.

The actual depiction of the Sacrifice of the Altar in art, however, did not develop until medieval times when images of the Mass and the moment of Consecration itself began appearing in prayer books and missals.

Depictions of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass continued uninterrupted through the Renaissance, as in the oft depicted Mass of St. Gregory. In the most popular, by Adriaen Isenbrant, painted ca. 1500 and now in the Prado museum in Madrid, Pope St. Gregory is shown saying Mass when Christ appears on the altar as the Man of Sorrows at the moment of consecration with his hands opened showing the  wounds of his passion. According to tradition going back to the 8th century, while saying Mass one day, Pope Gregory became aware of a disbeliever (the woman who had actually baked the bread) and began to pray for a sign that would leave no doubt about the real presence of Christ in the Sacred Host.

Depictions of the Mass in art, however, reached an apogee in the post-Tridentine Baroque.

In response to Martin Luther’s denial of the doctrine of purgatory and the sacrificial nature and efficacy of the Mass in 1517, the Council of Trent (1545 – 1568) decreed, “[That] the Sacrifice of the Mass is propitiatory both for the living and the dead. And forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross. … For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. … Wherefore, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those who are departed in Christ, and who are not as yet fully purified, is it rightly offered, agreeably to a tradition of the apostles.” The Council of Trent further proclaimed that “the Bishops shall carefully teach this,—that by means of the histories of the mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by painting or other representations, the people is instructed, and confirmed in remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith.”

Reed pic 1In this renewed emphasis on the perennial Catholic doctrines to be expressed via the imagination the art of the Counterreformation excelled.

Following are two Baroque masterpieces:  In the first, the Spanish master, Francisco Zurbaran, painted the work (left) in 1638 based on the miraculous vision bestowed upon Fray Pedro de Cabanuelas in 1420 at the monastery of Guadeloupe in Estremadura. (The painting remains at the monastery.)  Under obedience, Fray Pedro personally wrote an account of the vision, albeit written in the third person, as the Lord had bound him to secrecy.

Apparently suffering from doubt regarding the real presence, Fray Pedro was granted the miraculous vision of the Sacred Host as it appeared from a cloud and dripped blood into the chalice also staining the linen pall.  The scene is painted accurately and most beautifully by Zurbaran, an artist not only of genius, but of known piety.

Another Baroque masterpiece based on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is “La Misa de San Juan de Mata” painted by Juan Careño Miranda in 1666, now hanging in the Louvre museum in Paris.

Based on an anonymous account written shortly after the event, St. John de Matha, while celebrating his first Mass at Paris in 1193, was granted an extraordinary vision of Christ holding by the hand two chained captives, one pale and handsome, the other dark and ugly, victims of the war in the Holy Land. After this vision, the Saint went on to found the order of  the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of Captives, or more simply,  “Trinitarians” dedicated to ransoming and attending to the physical and spiritual needs of Christians captured by Moslems in the Holy Land and elsewhere.

Reed pic 2The painting by Carreño Miranda, originally done for the “Trinitarians” of Pamplona does not show the explicit vision of Our Lord holding the captives hands, but His pointing them out, below to his right, being consoled by an angel, indicating the role that St John de Matha was to play in the future. The main theme of the painting is, however, Eucharistic and Trinitarian. In the lower or terrestrial portion of the painting, St. John elevates the Host at the moment of Consecration before an image of the Blessed Virgin “Immaculata” or Virgin of the Apocalypse  while those assisting at the Mass look on with astonishment. In the upper or celestial portion, angels carry the “Redeemed Creation” in the form of a glowing orb, to the blast of trumpets,  into the presence of the Most Holy Trinity.

This separation and intersecting of the terrestrial and celestial worlds via the Eucharist is a common device used in the Tridentine Baroque to counteract the “dualism” of Protestant theology.

While interest in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass waned among gifted and inspired artists during the second half of the 20th century, and churches no longer commissioned them to render the theme, didactic “holy cards” remained in use up to the time of the Second Vatican Council.

With the shift in emphasis, according to the so called “Spirit of Vatican II,” from “sacrifice” to “shared meal” in the years following the Council, visual representation of the “Perfect Holocaust” has all but disappeared.

Dare one also  hope that “the reform of the reform,” instigated by our recent Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, will set things straight and that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will once again be a center of interest for both  Catholic artists and those who commission them.


  • H. Reed Armstrong

    H. Reed Armstrong is a sculptor and Professor of Fine Arts with the International Catholic University, Notre Dame, IN. He has written articles and reviews for Crisis, Communio, Latin Mass, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, and most recently, the Review of Metaphysics. Much of his sculptural work and writings may be seen at his website: A.G. DEI Art.

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