The Disputation of the Eucharist

 Disputation of the Eucharist

Disputation of the Eucharist by Raphael Sanzio

The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament – also known by its nickname the Disputa – is a fresco of an allegory for Theology found in the Hall of Signatures in the Vatican together with three other frescoes….The room was originally used as a library and as a special room where the Pope would sign important documents, which is how the room got its name. The Disputa expresses four things at the least: the Communion of Saints, the Holy Spirit’s relationship with the Father and Son, the Real Presence, and the mystery of Theology.

The Communion of Saints

Two of the first things that are very noticeable are two horizontal planes: the heavenly and the earthly. In the heavenly plane we see from left to right St. Peter (holding the keys), Adam, St. John the Evangelist, King David, St. Laurence, Judas Maccabees, St. Stephen, Moses (with rays coming out of his face), St. James the elder, Abraham, St. Paul (holding a sword), with Christ in the center. On the earthly plane, we see personages such as Plato (holding his Timaeus), Aristotle (holding his Ethics), Socrates, Heraclitus, Digoenes, Euclid, Zoroaster, and Ptolemy. We also see four Doctors of the Church: Pope Gregory I, Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrose. It is a reflection of what Catholics believe is the Communion of Saints. Basically, it means that all members who belong to the Church are one – a union – with each other through Christ. Christ is the vine, and the members of the Church are the branches. Saint Paul would refer to the early Christians as “saints” or “holy” since we are temples of the Holy Spirit who makes us holy. Physical death does not change one’s union with Christ and the Church. So here in this fresco, we see the Church both living and “dead” fully alive, in different planes, and yet one.

The Holy Spirit Proceeds from the Father and the Son

Another thing that is easily seen is the vertical alignment of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the middle of the fresco. Years prior to this fresco, there was an argument on the relationship of the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son. The question was did the Holy Spirit come solely from the Father, or both Father and Son. It has been a long-standing Tradition of the Church Fathers, Councils, and Popes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son. It is the “filioque” clause (meaning “and from the Son”) that we profess in the Nicene Creed. We believe that the three persons of the Blessed Trinity are distinct, and we can glean that from their origins: The Father has no origin, the Son comes from the Father, and the Holy Spirit comes from the Father and from the Son.  We have to remember that God has no beginning, so none of the persons of the Blessed Trinity have a beginning. So when we speak of origin, we are speaking in terms our finite minds can understand.

The Real Presence

In the fresco we see vertical similarities in the figures as if showing that what is in heaven is also on earth. On the left of Christ is the Virgin Mary whose hands are pressed near her chest. Below her, on the earthly plane, there is a person right beside the table with the exact same expression. On the right of Christ is Saint John the Baptist with his hand raised up. Below him is Julius II also with his arm raised up in the same fashion. As you go left and right of both planes, you will see figures above with their equivalents below. This brings us to the middle of the fresco where we have God above and the equivalent on earth is the Blessed Sacrament painted as a white host inside a monstrance.

Catholics believe that Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. It is not just a symbol of Christ, but Christ himself. So the Host is the body and blood, and, therefore, contains the soul and divinity of Christ. Chapter six in the Gospel of John records Jesus teaching in the Synagogue that we must eat his body and drink his blood. Many disciples left because they understood he was teaching something that was literal and not just talking symbolically.

The Mystery of Theology

We come to the main allegory of the fresco: Theology. In the fresco, Raphael shows individuals discussing the Eucharist – and it is no dull conversation. Hands are pointing and certain people with their noses  buried in books as if searching for something. The word disputation does not necessarily mean disagreement. It can mean a formal argument to understand things. In fact, they are having an animated discussion about the Mass and the Host on the altar.[1]

For Catholics, the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life, for if we find an encounter with Christ in the sacraments, the Blessed Sacrament is Christ himself. The heated argument in the fresco is focused trying to understand how Christ is in the Eucharist. Catholics believe in transubstantiation. That is when a priest acts in the person of Christ and says, “this is my body”, “this is my blood” the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ respectively. While the materials (or technically called accidentals) are still bread and wine, the substance – the thing that a thing is – is no longer bread and wine but the body and blood of Christ. Raphael puts the host in the dead-center of the fresco as a way to illustrate this visually. In fact, the monstrance containing the host is the vanishing point (the point where all lines meet) if you trace the tiles on the floor.

By painting the host in the center of the fresco, it also indicates in a visual way, that the Eucharist is the link between heaven and earth. In Revelation we read of a heavenly worship that has all the elements of the Mass. In fact when we sing “Holy Holy Holy” during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we are in fact joining the angels in heaven for it is their song (Revelation 4:8)

The depiction of an on-going argument does not mean Catholics cannot agree on what the Eucharist is. What it reflects is that there are some things we acknowledge we can never fully understand. These are what Catholics refer to as theological mysteries. They are not mysteries in the sense that they are puzzles to be solved. Instead, they are things that cannot be completely understood…they are super-rational – something that is above the capability of our natural reasoning. They are supernatural truths that can only be contemplated through the eyes of the mind and the gift of faith.


(From “The Catholic Talks: Art Speaks”)



Heart, Soul and Mind

Monsignor Royal's weekly column as featured in our bulletin.


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