Editor’s note: This is the sixth post in our newest series, Beholding True Beauty, which consists of prayerful reflections on works of sacred art. The series will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the month of October. Read the whole series here.
If you are able to escape the stuffy mass of humanity in the Sistine Chapel and the security guards yelling “SILENZIO” and “NO FOTO,” be sure to take the short walk down the hall to a room called the “Stanza della Segnatura.” This room, which forms a portion of what used to be Pope Julius II’s papal apartments, served as a private library. Here, Pope Julius commissioned the painter Raphael to paint four frescoes. These magnificent frescoes depict the four classical ideas: philosophy, literary arts, justice, and theology. The theology fresco, known as the Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament, is the most astonishing because one’s eyes are not immediately drawn to any one person. Rather, one is drawn instantly to the Most Holy Sacrament in the monstrance that rests on the altar. Imagine studying in this library surrounded by so many leather bound books and a painting depicting the majesty and splendor of the august Blessed Sacrament!
Unlike the temple with vaulted ceilings that contains the School of Athens, there is no building to contain the union of the heavenly worship of Christ the King and the earthly worship of Christ in the Eucharist. This fresco is suspended in time and does not appear to be in a specific physical place. Nevertheless, we find ourselves arriving in the middle of the perfect worship of God.
Consider who is depicted in the Church Militant (the first semi-circle): great Popes, theological giants of the Church, Doctors of the Church. Yet, these men and women are all ancillary because they derive their meaning from the Most Holy Eucharist of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are all united by and brought into union through the Eucharist.
Now, look above at the second semicircle of the Church Triumphant, many of the great fathers of the Old Testament like Moses and King David are present. Next come St. Paul and St. Stephen, culminating in the center with St. John the Baptist and Our Lady who bow in adoration of Christ the King. They are all united in their worship of Jesus, the Son of God.
Notice now, the straight line that is drawn from the monstrance, to the Holy Spirit, then to Christ, and up to God the Father and back down again. There are symmetry, straight lines, and unity. There is total perfection and simplicity between the Trinity and the Incarnate Word made present in the Blessed Sacrament. All is one, all is simple, and all is complete union.
So what are we to think or say? Silence. No words; just the truth of the union of the God-Man with His creation made present in the monstrance. What do we do? Fall to our knees and close our eyes in thanksgiving for the gift of laying our eyes on the divine made present under the appearance of simple bread. How do we respond? Silence.
Then pray the famous hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas, Adoro Te Devote:
You, I devoutly adore, hiding Godhead , who, under these forms, are truly hiddenness itself. My whole heart submits itself to you for, contemplating you, it fails completely. Sight, touch, taste, in you are deceived; hearing alone can be completely believed. I believe all the Son of God has said; nothing is more true than this Word of truth.
Upon the cross the Godhead alone was hiding, but here the humanity also hides. Truly believing and confessing both, I beg what the penitent thief begged. I do not see wounds, as Thomas did, but I confess you as my God.
Make me believe ever more in you, to have hope in you, and to love you. O memorial of the death of the Lord, living bread that gives life to man, Grant me always to live for you, and to taste your sweetness always.
Kind pelican, Lord Jesus, cleanse me, who am unclean, in your blood, one drop of which would be enough to save the whole world of all its defilement.
Jesus, whom now veiled I gaze at, I pray that may come about which I so thirst for: that seeing you, your face unveiled, I may be blessed with the vision of your glory.
Image: Raphael, Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament