Early Symbols of the Eucharist
FREE Catholic Classes
Among the symbols employed by the Christians of the first ages in decorating their tombs, those which relate to the Eucharist hold a place of the first importance. The monuments of greatest consequence on which these symbols are depicted exist, principally, in the subterranean cemeteries of early Christian Rome, better known as the Roman catacombs . Their discovery and reopening in the latter half of the nineteenth century have thrown great light on more or less obscure allusions in early Christian literature . In this way Catholic theology now possesses supplementary information of appreciable value bearing on the belief in, and the manner of celebrating, the Eucharist in the sub-Apostolic age. According to Wilpert, an expert scholar in this field of Christian archaeology, the symbolic representations of the catacombs which refer to the Eucharist form three groups, inspired by three of Christ's miracles, namely the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the banquet of the seven Disciples by the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection, and the miracle of Cana. It is to the first two of these miracles, probably, that we owe the famous fish symbol, which briefly summed up the chief articles of the Christian belief. The earliest and always the favourite symbol of the Eucharist in the monuments was that inspired by the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; the banquet of the seven Disciples appears only in one (second-century) catacomb scene; the miracle of Cana in two, one of which is of the early third, the other of the fourth, century.
I. THE MIRACLE OF THE MULTIPLICATION
On two occasions Christ fed with loaves and fishes, miraculously multiplied, a large concourse of people who had followed Him into the desert. On the first of these occasions, recorded by all four Evangelists, five loaves and two fishes supplied the needs of five thousand people, while on the second occasion, mentioned only by St. Matthew (xv, 32 sq.), seven loaves and a "few" fishes more than sufficed for four thousand persons. In accordance with the practice of depicting only those features which were necessary to convey the meaning of a symbol, the Christian artists of the catacombs represented the miraculous multiplication as a banquet, in which the guests are seen partaking of a repast of loaves and fishes. In frescoes of this category, the source of the artist's inspiration is clearly indicated by the baskets of fragments on the right and left of the banquet scene. The number of baskets represented is not always historical, this being regarded as a matter of indifference so far as the symbol was concerned; six Eucharist frescoes show each seven baskets, but in three others the number is two, eight, and twelve, respectively. The number of guests in all symbolical repasts of the Eucharist is invariably seven, a peculiarity which Wilpert regards as due to the early Christian fondness for the symbolism of numbers. According to St. Augustine (Tract. cxxiii, in Joan.), the number seven represented the totality of the Christian world. The most ancient representations of the Eucharist in the catacombs is the fresco known as the "Fractio Panis", an ornament of the Capella Greca, in the cemetery of St. Priscilla. Wilpert attributes this, with other paintings of that chapel, to the early part of the second century, and his opinion is generally accepted. The scene represents seven persons at table, reclining on a semi-circular divan, and is depicted on the wall above the apse of this little underground chapel, consequently in close proximity to the place where once stood the altar. One of the banqueters is a woman. The place of honour, to the right ( in cornu dextro ), is occupied by the "president of the Brethren" (described about 150-155 by Justin Martyr in his account of Christian worship ), i.e. the bishop, or a priest deputed in his place for the occasion (Apol., I, lxvi). The "president" ( proestos ), a venerable, bearded personage is depicted performing the function described in the Acts of the Apostles (ii, 42, 46; xx, 7) as "breaking bread"; hence the name "Fractio Panis" ( he klasis tou artou ), appropriately given to the fresco by its discoverer. It is to be noted that these words are frequently used in the earliest non-inspired Christian literature as a synonym for the Eucharist (for the texts see Wilpert, Fractio Panis, Freiburg, 1895). The moment represented, therefore, is that immediately before the Communion, when the celebrant, then as now, divided the Sacred Host. And, as though to exclude all doubt as to the character of his subject, the artist added a detail found in no other representation of the Eucharist; in front of the celebrant he placed a two-handled cup, evidently the chalice ( calix ministerialis ) of the second century. Such is the earliest representation in Christian art of the offering of the Mass. A recent writer regards the scene as representing the celebration of the Eucharist in connection with the funeral agape on the anniversary of some person interred in the chapel. The guests partaking of the banquet, in this view, represent the relations of the deceased assisting at an anniversary Mass ( sacrificium pro dormitione ) for the repose of his soul (Wieland, Mensa und Confessio, p. 139). In addition to these unique details showing a real celebration of the Mass in the early second century, the author of this fresco depicted, side by side with the reality, a symbol of the Eucharist. In the centre of the table are two plates, one containing five loaves, the other two fishes, while on the right and left of the divan seven baskets of bread are distributed symmetrically.
After the "Fractio Panis" the most remarkable frescoes in which the miraculous multiplication is employed as a symbol of the Eucharist are two in the crypt of Lucina, the most ancient part of the catacomb of St. Callistus. Each consists of a fish and a basket of bread on a green field. At first view it would seems as though the fishes were represented each carrying a basket of bread, in the act of swimming. A closer examination of the frescoes made by Wilpert, however, has shown that the baskets are placed very close to, but not on, the fishes, and that the supposed blue surface is really green. The subject, therefore, is the miraculous multiplication, the green surface representing a field. As a symbol these pictures are particularly striking from the introduction of two glasses, containing a red substance, into the baskets. Evidently the artist in this detail had in mind the Eucharistic matter of wine. Consequently, the frescoes as a whole conveyed to an onlooker in the second century a meaning somewhat as follows: the miraculously multiplied bread, together with wine, formed the matter of the Eucharist, which, in turn, by a still greater miracle, became the substance of the Body and Blood of the Divine Ichthys , Jesus Christ.
The various Eucharistic banquet scenes of the catacombs appropriately symbolized the reception of Holy Communion. In one early instance the artist portrayed, besides a representation of this character, a new symbol having special reference to the Consecration. This consists of a scene showing two persons beside a tripod, on which are placed a loaf and fish. One of the figures is clad in the tunic and pallium reserved in early Christian art to persons of sacred character, while the other, at the opposite side of the tripod, stands in the attitude of an orans. The sacred personage holds his hands extended over the loaf and the fish, somewhat after the manner of a priest holding his hands over the chalice before the Consecration. Wilpert's interpretation of the scene is that the figure with extended hands represents Christ performing the miracle of the multiplication, which act, in the intention of the artist, is symbolic of the Consecration. The orans, on the other hand, is a symbol of the deceased, who, through the reception of Holy Communion, has obtained eternal happiness : "He that eateth this bread shall live forever" ( John 6:59 ). The representation described forms one of a series comprising three subjects, all relating to the Eucharist. The second of the series is the usual banquet of seven persons, symbolizing Communion, while the third depicts Abraham and Isaac in the orans attitude. In the symbolism of the time Isaac was regarded as a figure of Christ, whence the inference that this representation of Abraham's sacrifice was figurative of the Sacrifice of the Cross.
II. THE BANQUET OF THE SEVEN DISCIPLES
The repast of the seven Disciples by the Sea of Galilee is recorded by the Evangelist St. John (xxi, 9 sqq.). St. Peter and his fellow-fishermen, seven altogether, after taking the miraculous draught of fishes, drew their boats on shore, where they found "hot coals lying, and a fish laid thereon, and bread". The risen Saviour then invited them to eat, "and none of them . . . durst ask him: Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord". The incident thus recorded was just as appropriate a symbol of the Eucharist as the miracle of the multiplication, and as such it is once depicted in a painting of the second century. In this, as in all Eucharistic frescoes, the symbol of Communion appears in close proximity with a baptismal symbol. The banquet scene itself at first view seems in no wise different from the category of Eucharistic representations already described: seven persons are partaking of food, which consists of loaves and fishes. Two details, however, differentiate this particular picture (Sacrament Chapel A 2, cemetery of Callistus), from the symbolic banquets based on the miraculous multiplication. The first of these details is the absence of the basket of fragments always present in frescoes inspired by the latter subject, and the second consists in the fact that the seven banqueters are depicted nude, the manner in which fishermen were invariably represented in classic art. The author of this fresco, we may safely conclude, drew his inspiration from the repast by the Sea of Galilee, which he depicted as a symbol of the Eucharist. St. Augustine alludes to this symbol when he speaks of the "roasted fish" on the hot coals as representing Christ crucified ( Piscis assus Christus est Passus , Tract. cxxiii, in Joan.).
During the first and second centuries, with the one exception noted, the only symbol of the Eucharist adopted in Christian art was that inspired by the miraculous multiplication. The mode of representing the symbol, also, during this period scarcely varied; seven guests partake of the symbolic loaves and fishes, while baskets of bread are distributed at the sides. In one instance, however, the guests are omitted, and only a tripod with loaves and fishes and the baskets of bread are depicted. This fresco, which occupies a lunette of the Sacrament Chapel containing the symbol of the seven Disciples, Wilpert regards as a sort of compendium of the two symbols of the Consecration and the Communion described above. In the third century a new mode of representing the favourite Eucharistic symbol was adopted in a number of frescoes. This consisted in a scene showing Christ performing the miracle of multiplication by touching with a rod one of several baskets of bread placed before Him. In the loaves, also, incisions, sometimes made in the form of a cross, are seen. Paintings of this class were symbols of the Consecration. One of them (chamber III in the catacomb of St. Domatilla) is of more than ordinary interest. Unfortunately it has suffered serious injury at the hands of collectors. By the aid of a design made for Bosio, Wilpert has been able to reproduce the picture. It consists of three scenes. In the centre Christ is performing the miracle of multiplication with a rod. To the right of this He is again represented, His right hand raised in the oratorical gesture, while within the folds of His pallium five loaves marked with a cross are visible. Balancing this figure on the left is the Samaritan woman drawing water from the well of Jacob. According to the general principles underlying early Christian art, some relationship was here intended between the three groups. Ordinarily the Samaritan woman was a symbol of the refrigerium (refreshment) petitioned for in the Memento for the Dead at Mass. In the present instance Wilpert regards it as more probable that she is intended as a symbol of the soul in the enjoyment of eternal happiness ; the Eucharist, like the fountain of water ( John 4:14 ) "springing up into life everlasting", being a pledge of immortality. In the catacomb of St. Callistus there is a fourth painting of the miracle of the multiplication which conforms more closely to historical narrative than the representations of an earlier date ; Christ is here depicted with both hands held over the loaves and fishes presented to Him by two Apostles. It may be added that more than thirty frescoes of the miraculous multiplication still exist in the Roman catacombs. For an exact and reliable reproduction of them see Wilpert, "Le Pitture delle catacombe Romane", Rome, 1903.
III. THE WEDDING AT CANA
The custom introduced in the third century of representing the multiplication of the loaves to the exclusion of the fishes is thought to have been indirectly instrumental in bringing about a new and beautiful symbol of the Eucharist in early Christian painting. Previous to this time only two frescoes contained any allusions to the Eucharistic wine; the chalice of the "Fractio Panis" and the red substance in the baskets of the crypt of Lucina. But the epitomizing of the multiplication symbol by the omission of the fishes (leaving only bread, one of the two species required for the Eucharist) probably suggested the idea of a special symbol for the Eucharistic wine. No more appropriate symbol for this purpose was to be desired than the miracle of Cana ( John 2:1-11 ), which was actually adopted. As Christ at the marriage feast changed water into wine, so on another occasion He changed wine into His blood. Quite apropos in this relation is a o Eucharistic symbols of the first Christian age are reproduced in a new and striking manner. The picture occupies the frieze of the apse in a small cemeterial basilica and is, consequently, above the place formerly occupied by the altar. The stone bench for the clergy in the sanctuary is still in place. Three scenes, separated by trees, are represented. The central subject is the miraculous multiplication; Christ, identified by the nimbus, is seated on a throne and is in the act of blessing loaves and fishes presented by St. Peter and St. Andrew (identified by inscriptions). At His feet twelve baskets of bread are distributed symmetrically. To the right and left of this picture were two banquet scenes. The former is almost wholly destroyed, but a Greek inscription gives a clue to the subject. This reads: "Those partaking of the eulogia of Christ". Eulogia is the term used by St. Paul ( 1 Corinthians 10:16 ) in references to the Eucharist: "the chalice of eulogia [benediction] which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?" The application of this term, therefore, to the food set before the banqueters, points to the inference that here was depicted a Eucharistic scene in which the guests partook of the symbolic loaves and fishes. The scene on the right, we learn from inscriptions ("Jesus", "Mary", "Servants"), represented the miracle of Cana. The author of this fresco, who was well acquainted with the symbolism of the first centuries, evidently reproduced (1) the favourite symbol of the Eucharist, i.e. the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and (2) the later symbol of the Eucharistic wine, inspired by the miracle at the wedding feast.
- Unfailing Prayer to St. Anthony
- A Guide for Confession
- Hail Mary
- The Apostles' Creed
- Act of Contrition
- The Our Father
- Padre Nuestro - Our Father (Lord's Prayer)
Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.