The First Mass of St John of Matha
Basilica di San Crisogono, Rome
The distinguished Italian artist and art historian Rodolfo Papa now has his own website on Religious art. The blog is simply entitled Rodolfo Papa
He is also Professor of the History of Aesthetic Theory in the Faculty of Philosophy at the Pontifical Urban University, Rome,
Many basilicas in Italy have his works including Sulmona. His writings (in Italian only) appear very frequently in the Italian edition of Zenit.
If one wants to know about religious art, look no further
Saint John of Matha (1154 - 1213) was the co-founder of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity ("The Trinitarians"). The Trinitarians` Church in Rome is The Basilica di San Crisogono
St John was a priest in France when he celebrated his first Mass on 28th January 1193. It took place in the chapel of the Archbishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully
There he had a vision. He saw a man in white with a blue and red cross on his chest. The man had placed his hands on two prisoners: one of whom was white, the other a Moor
The next day St John made a a retreat in forest with a hermit. The two men saw another vision: a stag carrying a cross in its antlers (reminscent of the story of St Eustace ?)
Troubled he discussed the visions which he came to interpret as a call to found an order dedicated to ransom Christian prisoners taken hostage in the Mediterranean.
Often these hostages were pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land. As well as people who lived on the coast of the Mediterranean or traded there.
The mission of the Order put the lives of the Trinitarians at great risk. Many suffered death in their vocation
The order was approved by Pope Innocent III on 17th December 1198
In the work we see the vision of the saint occurring at the moment of Consecration of the Eucharist when the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper is repeated by the priest.
It is not the prayer of the laity. But the whole Church can attend and join in the prayer
If we read the recent discourse by Pope Benedict XVI on prayer which is on Jesus` prayer at the institution of the Eucharist, the depth of Papa`s painting is uncovered.The work perfectly illustrates what occurred at the First Mass celebrated by Saint John of Matha and its effects on Saint John and his ministry
In his talk, the Pope first reminded us of the context of the Last Supper. It took place at a feast which was a memorial of past liberation and when hopes for present and future liberation were rekindled:
"[O]n the very day He was preparing to bid the disciples farewell, the life of the people of Israel was marked by the approaching feast of Passover; i.e. of the memorial of Israel’s liberation from Egypt. This liberation -- experienced in the past, and awaited anew in the present and for the future -- was relived in the family celebrations of the Passover."
But this liberation is achieved by sacrifice, the self-sacrifice of Jesus:
"The Last Supper takes place within this context, but with a fundamental newness. Jesus looks to His Passion, Death and Resurrection fully aware of them. He wills to experience this Supper with His disciples, but with a wholly unique character, different from all other banquets: It is His Supper, in which He gives Something totally new: Himself. Thus it is that Jesus celebrates His Passover and anticipates His Cross and Resurrection."
This sacrifice arises from perfect love and charity. The repetition of the Eucharist is an act of the Trinity, of Trinitarian love:
"He therefore offers in anticipation the life that will be taken from Him, and in this way He transforms His violent death into a free act of self-giving for others and to others. The violence suffered is transformed into an active, free and redemptive sacrifice.
Once again, in prayer -- begun in accordance with the ritual forms of the biblical tradition -- Jesus reveals His identity and His determination to accomplish unto the end His mission of total love, of offering in obedience to the Father’s Will. The profound originality of His gift of Himself to those who are His own through the memorial of the Eucharist is the summit of the prayer that marks the farewell supper with His disciples.
In contemplating Jesus’ actions and words on that night, we see clearly that His intimate and constant relationship with the Father is the locus where He accomplishes the act of leaving to His disciples, and to each one of us, the Sacrament of love, the “Sacramentum caritatis”.
Papa depicts the saint in action in the prayer. It is a common enough depiction when a prest or saint is depicted celebrating the Eucharist (as in The Mass of Pope St Gregory). The Eucharist involves action and words. The acts are what we call ritual which are part of the prayer. These acts are not theatrical or performance art. They are far more serious and profound. They are part of the prayer, the Reality and the witness to the Truth:
"Before the words of institution come the actions: the breaking of bread and the offering of wine. The breaking of bread and the passing of the chalice are in the first instance the function of the head of the family, who welcomes the members of his family to his meal; but these are also gestures of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger who is not part of the household to table fellowship and communion.
These very gestures, in the meal with which Jesus takes leave of those who are his own, acquire an entirely new depth: He gives a visible sign of welcome to the meal in which God gives Himself. Jesus offers and communicates Himself in the form of bread and wine"
The Pope emphasised the profound transformation effected by the Eucharist:
"The Eucharist is the food of pilgrims that becomes strength also for whoever is tired, exhausted and disoriented ...
From her earliest days, the Church has understood the words of consecration as part of her praying together with Jesus; as a central part of the praise filled with thanksgiving through which the fruit of the earth and of men’s hands are given to us anew by God in the form of Jesus’ Body and Blood, as God’s gift of Himself in His Son’s self-emptying love (cf. Jesus of Nazareth, II, pg. 128).
In participating in the Eucharist, in nourishing ourselves on the Flesh and Blood of the Son of God, we unite our prayer to that of the paschal Lamb on His last night, so that our lives might not be lost, despite our weakness and infidelity, but might be transformed."