Tilman Riemenschneider of the Day: Blood Altar

I began this series with a question about how we develop a spirituality of seeing. When viewing a scene such as this one, of the Last Supper, would you focus on a particular detail of an individual, or a group, or the whole composition together, or the relationships between the characters within it, or something else? What do you see in this scene?

Blood Altar

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We are used to seeing through the medium of moving pictures, in which typically the camera leads the eye. The motion picture photographer tells your eye where to look; it is a directed gaze. This is unlike live theater, in which everything on stage is available to be seen, and the audience looks as it wishes. And it is especially unlike visual art that does not move, but relies upon the eye of the viewer to explore it and examine it, to see it as one chooses, and at a slow pace.

Are we losing our capacity for meditative gaze? A museum curator I know recently quoted a statistic that visitors to art museums spend 15-20 seconds looking at a work of art. That is not a meditative gaze, if you ask me. That is a symptom of a weak eye, that is, of seeing weakened by always being told where to look, and made impatient by being trained always to move quickly from one scene to the next. It’s seeing that has forgotten or never learned how to explore freely, to drink in a scene, or to be lost in wonder before something of great beauty or significance. It is the gaze of one who does not intend to enter into inward dialogue with what is seen. It’s the omnivorous seeing of information gatherers, consumers, and fun-seekers, which is what we all are cultivated to be in the online, video, commercial world. It’s the opposite of religious or contemplative seeing.

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This wood carved altarpiece by Tilman Riemenschneider is in the Church of St. James in Rothenburg on the Tauber. It is called the “blood altar” because it holds a relic of what is supposedly a drop from the cup of the Last Supper, inside a crystal. Above this scene of the Last Supper is the Man of Sorrows, below, the Crucifixion.

Very unusually, the central figure of this composition is Judas. I’ve thought a lot about that choice as an invitation to “see” something. It asks the viewer, or so it seems to me, to reflect on Judas’s betrayal of the Savior and thus, by extension, our own betrayals. I didn’t “get it” at first that the “blood” in question was a Eucharistic reference; I assumed it was a reference to Christ’s physical blood shed on the cross. But they come together in the end: betrayal, blood money, the blood shed on the cross, the Eucharist. How do we betray him, even as we share his table?

If you look carefully, you will see that the figure of Judas protrudes a little. There are wings of the altarpiece that close, but they will not close while Judas is in the scene.

14 comments

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #1:
      I agree with you Karl. Wood is wonderful material. Perhaps because it was once a living thing? I especially love it when the artist carves using the natural grain of the wood to help shape the figures or their draperies.

  1. I have often thought that the relief and statuary of the high medieval period were not intended for individual contemplation, but rather as an integral component of the totality of Mass. Did “the people” not understand the Mass because it was said in Latin and moreover was usually inaudible? Quite the opposite! I am certain that the medieval or early modern person understood the Mass in a manner exponentially more profound than our feeble exaltation of didacticism and an individual comprehension of the Mass.

    I would say that the medieval man or woman understood “church art” as an amplification of the sacrifice of the altar, as if the altarpiece or reredos came to life within the context of the eschaton piercing the temporal. Mass, then, became the iconic drama of salvation around which stood human attempts to capture the ineffable synthesis of human hand and divine offering of the altar. Words were not needed because the totality of the Mass was all that was (and is) needed for the nourishment of Christian life.

    The Reformation, the dissolution of feudalism, and the rise of a proper bourgeoisie introduced widespread literacy to Europe. For only so long could the Church, and especially the Roman rite, travel through the rise of didactic life while celebrating what is substantially a medieval liturgy. Words became, and are now, the primary images. Now we are at a point where the human gesture as a word-like semiotic communication has almost absolutely triumphed over the seamless integration of visual imagery and liturgical action.

    A reformer might contend that all must be seen and heard at Mass unless all are not welcome. And yet, what is more welcoming than a union of the images of human hands and the all-encompassing drama of the altar? Certainly not an obsession with “proclamation” and the instructional role of hymns.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #2:
      Jordan, I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but I think you may be confusing several things in your comment above. First, in the high middle ages and even the late middle ages people spoke Latin. That’s not the issue. Second, the notion that art and liturgy were “one” in the Middle Ages (the art was “integral… to the totality of the Mass”) is misleading. If what you say above is literally true, it would necessarily follow that the distinct art makes the Masses distinct. If what you mean, on the other hand, is that the entire environment contributed to the celebration, that is an unexceptional statement, and one which is repeated in modern liturgical documents. There’s more common ground here than you let on. Third, except in rare cases, the onset of modern reform did not, as you seem to suggest, result in the elimination of sanctuary art intended to complement the liturgy and/or the religious sensibilities of the faithful who come to celebrate the liturgy. There’s plenty of it today, even if differently arranged or purchased out of catalogs. If you want to talk about the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, fine, but that’s not how you’ve framed the issue. Perhaps it would be helpful if you said who you have in mind. I do find it interesting that so many contemporary worship spaces are now adding video screens to their sanctuaries. Obviously, there’s an eagerness to engage the eye, and through the eye, the intellect and the heart. But my question is: does this *style* of looking enable us to see better those things we need to see for faith and faithful living? Or are we creating an environment in which the premise is accepted that it’s intolerable to stand still, and one in which those matters which can’t be absorbed quickly remain unseen?

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #6:

        The syntax and semantics of medieval and early modern Latin often diverged quite significantly from classical and literary late antique Latin. These registers significantly influenced Mass propers. Foundational aspects of Latin, such as the classical conjugation paradigms, changed significantly through the rise of vernaculars. A medieval cleric would likely require specialized training in classical and late antique Latin as today. Do not presume that a medieval cleric’s ability to chant the office or say Mass constituted fluency in the literary registers of Latin.

        No, I do not contend that specific artworks were intrinsically bonded to certain Masses. It is also true that modern liturgical documents acknowledge that environment is crucial to understand the Mass. Also, contemporary churches often use prefabricated artwork and altarpieces to accentuate liturgy. Modern church environments, however, differ significantly from a pre-industrialized culture where iconography and statuary were created for a specific place, time, and message. The Masses said before the madonna of Czestochowa and the tilma of Our Lady of Guadelupe are not special Masses for these inspired depictions of the Blessed Mother. Rather they are Masses seen through the prism of the Blessed Mother’s protection of the Church.

        I do not single out any one early modern reformer as the originator of iconoclasm. Rather, the liberation of the literary through the printing press, combined with a renewed interest in practical Biblical exegesis, created a shift from an image-culture to a word-culture. The use of video screen for hymn lyrics, for example, shows an almost complete disconnect between word-culture and liturgy as drama. Video screens are not, as you note, an state where worshipers find it “intolerable to stand still”. Rather, image-culture and liturgical drama have been shattered. The path of meditation through these means are closed, and perhaps cannot be found again. The closure of this path is the source of anxiety.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #9:
        One more note. You are so attuned to the intricacy of Latin, Jordan. You write:
        “Do not presume that a medieval cleric’s ability to chant the office or say Mass constituted fluency in the literary registers of Latin.” But that’s not my presumption. Only that one knew enough of Latin to know in general what was going on in the Mass. That’s supported by Eamon Duffy and other historians, no? Even Sigrid Undset portrays it that way in her novels. The literary registers, no. The general drift of things, yes, although even this changed and became more difficult and distant as the vernaculars developed and Latin fell into disuse. The bigger problem in the high middle ages was audibility.

      3. @Rita Ferrone – comment #11:

        Rita, I tutor Caesar’s Gallic Wars five days a week. It’s hard to shift out of a mindset focused on the intricacies of a literary Latin. This difficulty is a deficiency, not a strength.

        You are quite right that while an understanding of literary Latin was outside the grasp of clergy and laity alike in the medieval period, all understood the meaning of Latin prayers and the “drift” (good characterization) of the Church’s liturgies. I do not agree, however, that audibility would have qualitatively changed a culture of Latin quasi-literacy. After all, the formitible altar roods of the medieval age offered great opportunities for meditation on the images which communicated to the nave the mysteries celebrated behind the rood. I have often remarked to myself that I would most gladly hear Mass from outside the enclosure of Canterbury Cathedral than attend another experimental Mass where communicants gathered around a freestanding altar within an iconoclastic chapel.

        If an often illiterate medieval population could recite paternosters and understand the meaning of this prayer, why then did Pope Paul VI, in an age of almost universal literacy in the “developed” world, speak of the sphere of the literary Latin register of the Roman liturgy language as a world that must be closed? Should not he have thrown the doors open to this world, to encourage the faithful to understand the “drift” of the literary Mass? No, every last word and gesture must be uncovered in the language of “modern man”! This repudiation slammed the door on liturgical image and drama.

  2. ROBERT BUCHANAN (1841-1901) wrote a long poem, The Ballad of Judas Iscariot. An internet search will find it. It commences:
    ‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
    Lay in the Field of Blood;
    ‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
    Beside the body stood.
    A drama then follows, and the poem concludes with the Bridegroom welcoming Judas:
    “The Holy Supper is spread within,
    And the many candles shine,
    And I have waited long for thee
    Before I poured the wine!”

    The supper wine is poured at last,
    And the lights burn bright and fair,
    Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
    And dries them with his hair.

    1. @Pádraig McCarthy – comment #3:
      Padraig, what an amazing poem.

      I’m struck with the gentleness of Jesus in the image above. The disciples may be puzzled and concerned, Judas tense and anxious, but Jesus is able to know all, and forgive all. Even as he faces his betrayer, he is unmoved. I stand in awe of that degree of serenity and kindness. Robert Buchanan’s poem fits with this absence of the impulse to defend or avenge: “I have waited long for thee…”

      How does one emulate such serenity in the face of the treachery of one’s friend and disciple?

  3. “Rather, image-culture and liturgical drama have been shattered.”

    I don’t know what you mean by this statement. Can you explain it?

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #10:

      Rita, you have mentioned the use of screens to project hymn lyrics. This phenomenon suggests a triumph of the literal over the imaginative and abstract. Worship is centered on words, almost forcibly so as the screens are so prominent that they cannot be avoided. In this desert of the theurgical, icons, relief, and statuary are often absent. What we can offer with our hands and imaginations as gifts to the Lord and his holy sacrifice are spurned in favor of the hyper-literal. Yes, hymn-singing is an offering of praise and thanksgiving, but it is also ephemeral.

      The leaders of the liturgical movement derided the lay recitation of the rosary at Mass. Did many recite the rosary out of an ignorance of the meaning of the Mass? Perhaps. Even so, the rosary is a prayer that involves manual, intellectual, and spoken abilities. The rosary is an offering of the hands, an image which is strengthened through repetition. I know from recitation of the rosary at quiet low Masses that both the assistance of the Blessed Mother and the inaudible actions of the altar meld into an act of thanksgiving and sacrifice which can be understood without words. This is the union of image-culture and liturgical drama, shattered by the hyper-didactic nature of projection screens.

  4. Praying the rosary with devotion is certainly the kind of activity which can draw us closer to the mystery of the Triune God. Doing so while offering the Mass is quite another matter. Liturgical prayer is distinct from that of private devotions. The assembly, not unlike an orchestra, is composed of many instruments each one of which enriches the action of the whole. In the old ritual, priests didn’t do virtually all the parts of the Mass because that was based on a deep insight into the nature of Catholic worship. They did it because of a maldevelopment which dismissed the need for any other participants save the altar boys in order for the Mass to be offered validly. The people prayed rosaries, offered devotional prayers at shrines, or took in the rich visuals of the reredos, the statuary, and the stained glass windows because that’s all they knew to do. They weren’t taught how to offer Mass only that they must hear Mass on Sundays and other days of obligation. Surely this minimalistic approach to such a sacred ritual cried out for reform. I believe that’s what happened at VII, no?

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