Contemplating the meaning of the Eucharist
When looking at the Disputation over the Most Holy Sacrament, or The Disputa, a fresco created by Italian Renaissance painter Raphael, one thing stands out most: its emphasis on the Eucharist. Measuring 200 inches by 300 inches, The Disputa covers an entire wall near the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It depicts beautiful images of Church fathers, biblical characters, saints, prophets, and laypeople, all revolving around the Holy Trinity and the Eucharistic host enshrined in a monstrance.
It was painted in the early 16th century, just before the Protestant Reformation began and Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on Oct. 31, 1517.
Above the small host in the monstrance is the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and God the Father positioned in a vertical line. It is as if the Eucharist is not simply beneath the Holy Trinity, but a direct part of it as well. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends from heaven blessing the bread with rays of light. This reminds us of the words we hear the priest say at Mass from Eucharistic Prayer II:
Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Eucharist is a fundamental part of God’s plan for salvation. The Disputa points to the Blessed Sacrament as the way to heaven, reinforcing the Catholic teaching that “the Eucharist is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324). Located just outside the Sistine Chapel, the fresco serves as a map, guiding people to come inside and receive Communion. One man in particular points up to heaven, showing the way.
Just as bread is food to nourish and strengthen the body, the Eucharist is a spiritual food that strengthens and nourishes the soul. The monstrance containing the small host in The Disputa is a mystical portal to another life — a new life. It stands above humanity, a beacon of light, guiding men forward into full communion with God and one another. We need the Eucharist because we need Christ; we need his sacrifice to gain salvation.
The Disputa depicts many famous thinkers and writers, such as Dante, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine. These great minds, all in disputation over the nature of the sacrament, lead us to question whether or not we can ever fully understand the Eucharist. We know the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist, but can we ever fully comprehend its nature?
The saints’ furrowed brows and looks of wonder lead us to conclude that we cannot. Perhaps the best we can do is what the wise St. Ambrose seems to be doing at the side of the altar: Accept the sacrament as a sacred mystery and raise our eyes prayerfully and reverently toward heaven.