The Disputation on the Sacrament: A Manifesto in which the Church Tells its Own Story

Timothy Verdon

What did this image centered upon the Eucharist communicate to the people of its day? The dynamic assembly painted by Raphael in 1509, with the glorified Christ displaying his wounds in the center, was above all an iconographic reminder of the universal judgment: the day on which Christ will come "amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him. All the peoples of the earth will lament him" (Revelation 1:7).

For the sensibility of that time, the immediate impact, the primary message of the fresco, was of an eschatological character. It clearly showed the relationship between the Church militant upon the earth and the Church triumphant in heaven.

And then, in the apparent confusion of the scene, beyond the strange platform of clouds that divides the wall horizontally, the viewer would have noted the vertical axis defined by: God the Father above; Christ, who is displaying his wounds, in the middle; the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending in a nimbus of glory below Christ; and further below – on the altar placed upon three steps at floor level – the Eucharistic host in a monstrance.

So after the first impression, which would have been generally eschatological, or referring to the end times, the attentive observer would have made more specifically theological, even dogmatic, reflections: a central trinitarian structure and the sacrament as the visible extension of the life of the three divine persons, the object of attention for the figures gathered around the altar at the bottom.

The fresco's main axis, from the Trinitarian group down to the host, seems to echo the conclusion of the ecumenical council celebrated in Florence seventy years earlier. The decree it issued, Laetantur Caeli, exalts the real presence of the body of Christ in the consecrated host, right after defining as "reasonable and licit" the addition of the Filioque to the creed: and Raphael, in fact, shows the Spirit proceeding from the Father "and from the Son."

The timeliness of these references, as also the inclusion of portraits of personages of the time among those at the bottom of the fresco, are however situated within a context that underlines the link with the past.

The personages of the era who are depicted there – for example, Sixtus IV, the uncle of Julius II who is depicted standing to the right of the altar – mingle with the fathers and doctors of the early and medieval Church without any break in continuity.

And the placement of the Holy Spirit below Christ and directly above the host and the altar evokes not only the affirmation of the council of Florence, but also the ancient formula for the Eucharistic epiclesis, in which the priest entreats God the Father to send the Spirit, the sanctifier, that the offerings may become the body and blood of Christ.

Furthermore, the four Gospels emanating from the wings of the Spirit who is hovering above the monstrance allude to the unbreakable relationship between the word and the Eucharistic bread, as in the Mass itself, where the readings orient us toward the fulness of the Scriptures: Christ incarnate and really present in the sacrament of the altar.

So for a visitor at the time of the Renaissance, the Disputation must have suggested an eschatological situation announced beforehand by the liturgy.

And the brilliant design in perspective, which must have aroused admiration in the Rome of the early 1500's, leads the eye to the altar, which is situated in a space delimited by the half-circle of clouds upon which Christ and the other figures of the upper level are sitting. This semicircular space seems like the apse of an immaterial Church, one without walls or roof, in which two assemblies, whose members are of equal size and equal dignity, contemplate Christ. The earthly assembly sees him in the Eucharist in mystery, and they reason about this, as they are still seeking to grasp the mystery's full meaning. The heavenly assembly sees him not in symbol, but as he now is in his glory, together with the Father and the Spirit.

The hidden design by which Raphael composed the image is also of fundamental importance: the great cross constituted by the horizontal line of the saints, prophets, and patriarchs on the clouds, and the vertical line of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, plus the Eucharist. This cross, as the framework of the vision of glory, placed above the bookshelves, suggested that "Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified [÷] the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

But there's more. The Disputation is the first image that one sees when entering the Stanza della Segnatura, but it's not the only one. To the rear of the visitor who enters the room by the door on the northeast corner, there is The School of Athens, which is painted on the wall of the room opposite the Disputation. It is through this other fresco that one gathers the overall logic of the plan suggested to Raphael.

The two walls, in fact, are connected. School and Disputation constitute a single great image through which the visitor himself moves.

Standing in the middle of the room, one sees in The School of Athens figures who are emerging from deep within a vast hall still under construction. Among these noble figures one recognizes the greatest philosophers of antiquity: in the center, Plato, pointing to the sky with his right hand and carrying in his left the Timaeus; and Aristotle, who is gesturing toward the ground and carrying the Nichmoachean Ethics. And then there are Socrates, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Diogenes, Euclid, Zoroaster, Ptolemy. Some of them have formed a group and are carrying on a lively discussion; others remain alone, deeply immersed in their own thoughts. The entire assembly seems to advance toward the viewer: this impression is made using just a few figures and is reinforced through the powerful design in perspective.

But in the Disputation on the other side of the room, Raphael has created the opposite impression: the personages on floor level seem to move away from the viewer, turning toward the altar in the depths of the liturgical space defined by the half-circle of clouds.

So a person in the middle of the room has the sensation of participating in a collective movement that begins at the School of Athens and ends at the altar of the Disputation.

The magnificent hall of the School also has a specific architectural form: it looks like the nave of a great church. It is, in fact, in the form of the new Basilica of St. Peter designed by Raphael's friend Donato Bramante, and begun three years before the painting of the frescoes of the Stanza, in 1506. A visitor of that time who was familiar with the life of the papal court must have already known about Bramante's project, and thus would have been able to identify the architectural space of the School as the planned basilica.

Placing himself between the two principal frescoes of the Stanza della Segnatura, the Renaissance era visitor must have felt as if he were in the transept of the church under construction, emblematic of the universal church, along the nave of which the great thinkers of the ancient world advanced toward the altar placed in the apse delineated by the clouds. And a humanist might have felt as if he were a participant in the age-old progress of the human spirit from Greco-Roman paganism through the present toward the eternity of Christ, which he could already glimpse by faith in a marvelous symbol held up before man by the Church, the Eucharist.

For the visitor of the early 1500's – as also for Catholic believers today – that small round of white that Raphael isolates at the center of the altar was, therefore, the key to all the mysteries of the faith.

In the bread of God, the humanist Christian did not see the static object of devotion that the Eucharist had become in late medieval pietism, but a dynamic reality of the life of that union of many members which is the Church. Donato Acciaiuoli, in a sermon on the Eucharist he delivered in 1468, lists ecclesial communion as the first benefit of the sacrament. But he also insists upon the intellectual fascination that this mystery has always exerted, and continues to exert, upon men. In Raphael's Disputation, in fact, we see not only Eucharistic adoration – a purely religious act – but a dynamic "school" of thinkers gathered around the altar, who are intent upon penetrating the meaning of the mystery. These Christian doctors are just as animated in the search for truth as their pagan predecessors, in the School of Athens facing them, were.

For Giorgio Vasari, the first commentator on the Disputation during the 1500's, this intense intellectual activity painted by Raphael represents a process: they are "writing the Mass," he says, and "discussing the host upon the altar." The Mass, which makes present again, in an unbloody manner, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, is the liturgical action in which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the ecclesial community lives fully its conformity to Christ. "Writing" the Mass implies the tireless and age-old effort to understand, explore, and better live the mystery of communion, entrusted to the Church, between heaven and earth, between God and man.

Even outside of the liturgical action, the Eucharistic host revealed the body of Christ to the humanists: and this not only as a relic of his passion, but also and above all as communion, friendship, Church. In Raphael's fresco and in the commentary on it made by Vasari, we witness the world of the Renaissance recovering the ancient view of the Eucharist: the view of the Didache and of writers such as Gaudentius of Brescia, for whom the bread "comes from many grains of wheat, as also the mystical body of Christ is one, but is formed of the whole multitude of the human race, which is brought to perfection by the fire of the Spirit." And so it is for the blood: many grapes become a single chalice. Finally, this ancient writer explains how the unity of the Eucharist and the Church is accomplished: "Then comes the pressing upon the wine-press of the cross. Then there is the fermentation that takes place of its own accord within the ample spaces of hearts full of faith, hearts that take up the cross."

Looking over the Disputation from bottom to top – from the Eucharist to Christ and the Father – it appears clearly that the unity of the Church on earth with its Head in heaven, of whom the Eucharist is the symbol, is derived precisely from the "press" of the great concealed cross that organizes the entire composition, and along the vertical axis of which we contemplate the Trinity, while the horizontal one shows us our future in heaven with Mary and all the saints.

At the point where these two axes cross, preserving the unity between God and man we see Jesus Christ, the Man-God, who is seated above the two "schools": that of the sainted doctors and that of Athens, which is also part of the cosmic assembly.

We see Christ upon the invisible cross of history as saint Thomas Aquinas had characterized him: "The cross was not only the gibbet of him who suffered; it was the seat of him who taught." It is a cross which, more than a gibbet, here becomes a cathedra.

In this perspective, the Stanza della Segnatura presents itself as a manifesto in which the Church is telling its own story, at the dawn of the modern era: it is a truly Catholic, truly universal Church.

In fact, through the mystery of the divine will, even the pagans participate in the Church, the unsuspecting companions of its pilgrimage toward God. In their quest for spiritual wisdom, and in the desire to resolve the agonizing division between man's individual experience and his shared destiny, the ancient thinkers of The School of Athens laid the conceptual foundations upon which the Church would later build. Unaware of it themselves, they drove history toward the one the humanist Marsilio Ficino calls "the living book," Christ who teaches from the cross.

So, like the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, the pagan philosophers are also our forefathers in faith. In the transept of this church that embraces all of history, with the ancients in the nave and, in front, in the apse, the glory to come, the humanist believers of the 1500's might perhaps have recalled words addressed to the pagans of Ephesus at the Church's inception:

žBut now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ [÷]. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:13, 19-22).

Part of the text reproduced here was published in L'Osservatore Romano on October 12, 2005. It will be published again in a book by Verdon now being printed by Mondadori: La Basilica di San Pietro. I papi e gli artisti ["Saint Peter's Basilica: The Popes and the Artists"]. This version of the paper is borrowed from the www.chiesa site edited by Sandro Magister.

Sandro Magister writes: ROMA, October 17 2005 – In the hall of the Vatican where the synod on the Eucharist was being held from October 2-23, 2005, above the presider's table was a large screen. It displayed a famous fresco by Raphael, which illustrated for the synod fathers the theme of their meeting: the Disputation on the Sacrament. At the center of the depiction, on an altar surrounded by other fathers who are reasoning and discussing – while they adore – is the consecrated host exposed in a magnificent monstrance.

The original fresco is nearby, in the wing of the Apostolic Palace visited daily by thousands of visitors from all nations and faiths, a few steps away from the Sistine Chapel. Raphael painted it in 1509. Pope Julius II commissioned him to paint it in what was the library of his apartment for receiving visitors, which was later named the Stanza della Segnatura.

The Disputation, which is 7m wide, completely filling the wall it occupies, and is set off by a vaulted arch, was the first fresco that the 27-year-old artist from Urbino painted at the Vatican. And it is also his most richly theological work. On another wall of that same papal library, facing the Disputation, Raphael painted another famous fresco, The School of Athens, immediately after the first.

Both of these frescoes, and the room as a whole, provide an important means of understanding the Catholic faith as it was lived by the humanists of the papal court, at the dawn of the modern era.

The insight they provide is still powerfully instructive, as Timothy Verdon demonstrates in the text reproduced below. Verdon is one of the leading specialists in sacred art worldwide. Born in New Jersey in 1946, he is now a priest living in Florence. Educated as an art historian at Yale University, he has lived in Italy for thirty years, where he directs the office of the Florence archdiocese for catechesis through art. He is also a consultant for the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, a fellow of the Center for Renaissance Studies at Harvard University, and a professor at Stanford University and at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy. Benedict XVI invited him to the synod on the Eucharist as an expert.