A picture worth a thousand words.
In recent months, the American bishops issued the Roman Missal with Catholic liturgy in English. A delightful illustration sits opposite the page with Eucharistic Prayer I.
At first glance, you’d think it is just another crucified on a cross with a Mary alongside. But look closely and you see she has her hands raised up and in her hands is a chalice or tall cup of some sort to catch the Holy Blood that spurts from Jesus’ right side.
This is the same gesture the priest makes at Mass holding his chalice high.
Woman on the scene1
I don’t know if I’m the only one to notice this Mary with a cup.
Perhaps the artist is reminding us of Mary’s role in redemption along with Jesus. Related ideas you may have heard: Mary is priest-like in that she is the one through whom the incarnation takes place; through her, heaven comes to earth; a parallel to the consecration of bread and wine effected by the priest. One might suppose that the priesthood cannot be refused to women on account of gender because if anyone is a priest, Mary is.
Now with this illustration of Mary in the Roman Missal, each and every priestly celebrant reading Eucharistic Prayer I can glance at the accompanying illustration and be reminded that this woman holds aloft the Holy Blood, and that the priest serves an organization that denies qualified women the same opportunity he has, to represent the people and to hold aloft their offering, the chalice with consecrated wine.
Who is she?1
Are we sure who the woman with the cup is? Is she the Virgin Mary? Then why does she have a red veil? OK, she has a blue gown like the Virgin. And I don’t suppose there is any rule she can’t wear red.
The viewer might notice however, as I did, that the artist has positioned the two figures so that the backdrop for her reaching hands is Jesus’ (um) loincloth folded traditionally to create a drape hanging in front. So, is the woman Mary Magdalene with the Holy Grail?
Or is she the Marys’ predecessor, the Ancient One who gives the gift of the blood of her beloved young Lord to humankind for its betterment? Inhabitants of the Mediterranean world, for many thousands of years BCE, long before the reforming New Testament was written, would have had no problem at all recognizing a story in this illustration. Whoever drew it appears to be well-informed.
A background tree is often an accompaniment to Her in ancient stories?? The tree in the illustration might be the Tree of Life from Genesis or Revelation. But I have to say that the illustration’s tree is rather small and sickly (like it has been cursed?) and appears to have only a couple of leaves, shaped like fig leaves?? So the artist is saying that the ancient ways, represented by Her favored fig tree, are now surpassed by the larger “tree of the cross” in the foreground?
There are 12 blue clouds (or 12 patches of blue sky?) – for 12 tribes? for 12 apostles?
If I’m not mistaken, there is a loaf of bread barely visible, balanced in Mary’s arms. How did the bread get there? Maybe the cup is in her right hand only and the bread held with her left? So Mary is busying herself, making a lot of preparations with special bread and the special wine. Gifts for someone.
There is a major theme in the New Testament where Yahweh needs sacrificial blood as a redemption (meaning payment) to himself. Interesting that a more uplifting theme, that the life of Jesus is somehow a “gift to us,” seems to be more popular among Christians today.
Time collapses in the illustration. Whereas in the Gospel, Jesus had already died when his side was pierced by a lance, in the illustration Jesus looks very alert. His body is not contorted in an agony of suffocation, but he has outstretched arms and stands erect. The boulders near the foot of the cross may indicate a shattered tomb, the cloth on one a shroud. The crucifixion is happening simultaneously?? with the resurrection and with the out-of-sequence flow of blood drawn in arching red and white bands signifying “blood and water.” This is a wonderful portrayal of Divine grace ever-active, not restricted by history or time but still somehow associated with it.
Am I certain I know what the illustration means? Of course not. For all I know, the woman in the illustration is attempting first-aid and the “bread” could be a large bandage and the “cup,” which is indistinct and has only a hint of highlight, could be a wad of medicinal herbs.
Only the artist can know for sure.
I am just fascinated that the artist has a woman collecting the blood. No doubt, for a work of this magnitude, the artist did a lot of homework. I couldn’t recall seeing this imagery in Christian art before, and so browsed through my Janson’s History of Art to see what I could find:
>> 390 – 400 CE. “Priestess of Bacchus” (Leaf of a diptych). Victoria and Albert Museum, London. She stands beneath a tree holding a cup with grape-sized items in her left hand. A child (hers??) holds a little jug in his? right hand, maybe giving it to her, and a shallow bowl of something (bread??) in the other hand. The priestess’?? right hand is poised to take his jug (or to pick up a grape?). Designs of Her snakes nearby let us know this is religious art. Page 167.
>> 8th century CE. “The Crucifixion” (From a book cover? Bronze). National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. Two figures stand on either side of the Crucified. Blood spurts from his right side in an arch. The figure on that side catches it with her? hands. Page 197.
>> 11th century CE. “The Crucifixion” (Mosaic). Monastery Church, Daphne. Two haloed saints stand on either side of the Crucified. Blood spurts from his right side in an arch. The veiled saint on that side reaches out her right hand just short of the lower end of the spurt. Page 176.
>> 1425 CE. “The Holy Trinity with the Virgin and St. John” (Fresco) by Masaccio. Sta. Maria Novella, Florence. Two figures stand on either side of the Crucified. No spurt. One figure, a veiled and haloed saint (still same side), holds up her right hand, palm up, like testing for rain, yet slightly cupped. Page 322.
>> 1510 – 1515 CE. “The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece” (Panel) by Matthias Grunewald. Musee Unterlinden, Colmar. Two veiled women are on the right side of the Crucified. No spurt. The women have hands reaching out, but clasped in lamentation. However, the one standing has her left hand laying across her right which is palm up and cupped. Page 388.
So does this mean a progression in the symbolism, peaking somewhere around a thousand years ago? I can’t tell from my quick survey. Anyway, I get the idea that the Roman Missal illustration is grounded historically.
It is a very fitting illustration and great art – in the right place at the right time.
1) Photo by Nancy Phelan Wiechec: “A page from a copy of the new Roman Missal in English,” Catholic News Service (CNS), published on page 23 of NCR article: Tom Roberts, “New missal translation is really ‘Whatever,’” National Catholic Reporter (NCR), January 20 – February 2, 2012. I was not able to locate the full-size photo of the illustration online, only reduced copies. So the partial scans of the NCR clipping I have in this post are the best I have available at the moment to comment on.