Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raphael (Urbino, Italy 1483 – Rome, Italy 1520), Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, 1509, fresco, 500 cm x 770 cm, Vatican, Vatican Museums.
14 June, Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi).
The large fresco is part of the decoration of one of the 4 Raphael Rooms, painted with his students for Pope Julius II of the Della Rovere family, who entrusted the young genius from Urbino with the task of painting the rooms of his private apartment.
This fresco was in the Pope's library and private study. His successor, Leo X of the Medici family, made it a study and a music room, where his collection of musical instruments was also kept. In the middle of the 16th century, it finally became the seat of the highest court of the Holy See, the “Segnatura Gratiæ et Iustitiæ.” Today, this extraordinary room is named after that: Room of the Signatura.
The title under which we know the fresco is perhaps not the most exact. It would be better to call it “The Triumph of Religion.” What strikes us most when contemplating this great fresco (it is 5 metres high and almost 8 metres wide) is the possibility of reading it both horizontally and vertically. Along the vertical axis in the centre, starting from above, we find the Trinity (God the Father, the Risen Jesus showing the signs of the Passion, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove) and the Eucharist, with the host in the tabernacle placed on the altar. We are presented with the heart of Christianity, the three persons of the Trinity and the mysterious presence of Jesus in the bread that is his body.
The horizontal axis actually develops on two levels. The first, in the upper part of the fresco, presents us with the triumphant Church: on either side of Christ are Mary and John the Baptist and, to the right and left on the clouds, characters from the Old and New Testament (we can recognise, from the left, St. Peter, Adam, St. John the Evangelist, David, St. Lawrence, St. Stephen, Moses, St. James, Abraham, St. Paul). In the lower part, at the sides of the altar on which is placed the Holy Sacrament, is depicted the militant Church, with the Holy Doctors of the Western Church on marble thrones (Gregory the Great who has the features of Julius II, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine), bishops, popes, monks, but also artists and scientists; some are historical characters, easy to identify (the monk on the far left is the painter Beato Angelico, the pope standing on the right with a beautiful golden cape is Sixtus IV, the uncle of Julius II, and behind him is Dante Alighieri).
There are then two characters that I’d like to highlight. One is the young man on the left, wearing a blue cloak: he is pointing out the Holy Sacrament to the man behind him, who is intensely reading a big book, perhaps about theology. The second character is on the opposite side, on the right, wearing a pink tunic: leaning against the beautiful sculpted balustrade, he tries to get a look at the altar. Both these young people, whose names we do not know, are attracted towards the presence of Jesus in the world; they are facing the focal point of the fresco, to which they all converge and from which an energy seems to emanate through all the characters.
The all range of gestures in the lower part of the fresco is varied and highly expressive and contrasts with the aplomb and calmness of those who are already enjoying bliss beside the Trinity. This is actually right, because in the lower part of the fresco there are also us, women and men of the twenty-first century, believers and Christians, hit by the pandemic, with our doubts and uncertainties, but also eager to show Jesus to the world and to bear witness to Him with all our lives.
Let us join the prayer of the conclusion of the Sequence proclaimed before the Gospel in the Sunday Mass of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi:
Behold the Bread of Angels,
For us pilgrims food, and token
Of the promise by Christ spoken,
Children's meat, to dogs denied.
Shewn in Isaac's dedication,
In the manna's preparation:
In the Paschal immolation,
In old types pre-signified.
Jesu, shepherd of the sheep:
Thou thy flock in safety keep,
Living bread, thy life supply:
Strengthen us, or else we die,
Fill us with celestial grace.
Thou, who feedest us below:
Source of all we have or know:
Grant that with Thy Saints above,
Sitting at the feast of love,
We may see Thee face to face.