Disputation of the Holy Sacrament

The Beauty of Contrast and Continuity

Luke presents us with a real challenge when he shares with us Jesus’ parable about the dishonest steward (or manager) {See Luke 16:1-13}  If you find yourself asking questions about what Jesus says in this passage you are not alone. Here is the obvious question: How can Jesus commend the bad behavior of a corrupt steward ~ as a good example for people of faith? We have a reading translated from Greek, which was itself probably an earlier translation of Jesus’ words in Aramaic. Therefore, we have to try to put our head into the text, in order to understand it. So… how can ‘the children of this age’ provide a commendable example to ‘the children of light’? Two paintings by Raphael may be able to help us with this ~ paintings you may have seen before.

They are found in a remarkable room in the Vatican Museum, painted about the same time that St. Peter’s Basilica was being built next door. Visitors entering this room face the fresco in the lower image, which looks like the sanctuary of a church with an altar and the sacrament upon it. On either side of that altar, and above it, are depictions of famous saints and biblical figures, as well as the Holy Trinity. Then, turning around in that same Vatican room, one sees the fresco in the upper image. It is the famous School of Athens, depicting great figures from the classical world with Plato and Aristotle in the middle. Tour guides typically present these two paintings, which face each other, in terms of the contrast between them. They say things like this: “Here, on this wall, we have the best minds of the pagan world. But, on the opposite wall, we see great saints of the Bible and the Church.” Or, to use Jesus’ words, we see ‘the children of this age’ in the upper image, contrasted with ‘the children of light’ in the lower one.

Yet, it’s quite possible to look at these related paintings in two different ways. We may, at first, be disposed to see the contrast between them as tour guides typically do. But we might also be open to seeing the continuity between them, even if the content of the two paintings seems rather different. For example, those who notice continuity will observe that the two frescos are composed with the same elements: the same colors and textures; the same arch over each image; and, that the two spaces in which the figures walk or sit may be in the same building. Further, the perspective or vanishing point in each painting converges upon that of the other.

Finally, visitors entering this room walk in the same direction as Plato and Aristotle, and —with them— toward the altar on which the sacrament is displayed. As a result, visitors standing between the two paintings are at the equivalent of what would be ‘the crossing’ of a church, a church which looks remarkably like St. Peter’s, next door. And so, as Raphael designed it, Plato and Aristotle are in the same company as visitors to this room, who join them in approaching the altar in the fresco showing all the saints! Therefore, these two paintings provide a splendid illustration of the theme of continuity.

 

The images above are of two of Raphael’s paintings, traditionally titled The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.