By Elizabeth Zelasko
Artist and Iconographer
When talking about a work of art, historical context deepens our appreciation. So, let’s start there.
We all know the names Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello and Leonardo, but their significance as artists who influenced western civilization dims as time passes between us and them. In their day, these four men were key players in the revitalization of Rome. The man in charge was Pope Julius II, who recognized that the Church needed a new face for a new generation. His plan was ambitious, and he used beauty to make it happen. While the Sistine Chapel was being painted and the atmosphere in Rome was buzzing off of paint fumes and marble dust, Raphael Sanzio burst onto the scene as a vibrant, talented 25-year-old artist who had a winning combination of competitiveness and camaraderie. Raphael was commissioned to paint the frescos on the walls of the Pope’s new upstairs apartments. The four main frescos centered around the theme of wisdom, one of these frescos being La Disputa del Sacramento.
Our first impression of an artwork can often make-or-break our relationship with the work. A study shows that the average museum patron pauses in front of any given work for less than two seconds. Let’s give Raphael a bit more time here.
A picture is worth a thousand words. La Disputa quadruples that number to the point that you may feel like asking the painting to take a breath before it says anything else. It seems as though our entire faith — as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be — has somehow been condensed into this one glorious image. When we stop to read the image, our first impression may be that there are two very different, yet related realms. We see the Church Triumphant on top — present but just out of reach, descending to earth on a cloud of witness. The second realm is that of the earthly Church Militant on the bottom.
Let’s start with God the Father in the upper-most arc: His realm feels ethereal, with only angels by his side. From there, the Holy Trinity moves towards us through the person of Jesus. We see Christ inside his orb seated as Head of the Church Triumphant, with Mother Mary and John the Baptist on his right and left, respectively. The saints, prophets and apostles sit with their King, having won the race. Below Christ, and in line with the Father, we see the third Person of the Holy Trinity, flanked by cherubs holding the four gospels for all to see.
All three descending circles — the Father’s arc, Christ’s rays and the Holy Spirit’s orb — funnel our eyes down to the final and climactic circle of the Holy Eucharist. Here the eye can finally rest as there is no distraction directly surrounding the body of Christ on the high altar. The atmosphere here is paused in holy silence as the Eucharist sits atop a solid rectangle.
Throughout history, many churches have been built around the concept of heaven, represented as a circle or half dome, coming down to the four corners of the earth, as ⊲ symbolized by a square or rectangle. Raphael makes this conceptualization clear through his composition: the unending perfection of the Trinity, found in the circle, enters into our earthly existence that is defined by its beginnings and ends like the lines composing the rectangle. This pattern is then reiterated on the floor which the Church Militant stands.
The earthly realm of the Eucharist differs greatly from the upper realms of the painting. Rather than flying aloft with angels or sitting in peace with the holy men and women who have passed from this life, the flesh of Christ is alive and present here among the frenzy of the living, some of whom you may recognize. Things here are kinetic. People are pointing, fact checking in books, leaning, sitting, standing, talking and looking every which way. This is the human experience of earth.
Amid this is the peace of the Eucharist, looking directly at us, offering us food from heaven, the serenity we crave, the communion we long for, an entrance into the heavenly orbs, moving up towards our final destination: our Father in heaven.
A deeper interior glance
When we sit with a painting for more than two seconds, it can become a vehicle for prayer. It’s similar to praying Lectio Divina, where we read, sit with and reflect on what God is saying to us through this image of heaven meeting earth.
This fresco asks a fundamental question: is the Eucharist at the center of my life?
Do I see the truth that is before me, that the Eucharist is my food for the journey? My bread of life? My entrance into the Heavenly orb? It asks if I am living the kind of life now that will allow me to have a seat among the saints of the Church Triumphant. Am I living in right order and right relationship with the things and people around me? Is the central theme and vertical axis of my own interior composition aligned with the Holy Trinity? Am I like the Church Militant, fact checking, leaning towards the truth, speaking to those around me who also hunger for truth and pointing people upwards, towards God the Father? Great art speaks truth, and we can move towards that truth or away from it.
How to move forward
Now that we’ve looked at Raphael’s fresco and spent time with the message he is trying to convey to us, one may ask: what’s next? If we have taken an honest inventory of our answers to the above questions, I suggest asking God for direction and allowing him time to answer. To take an inventory is to look at all our possessions, decide what is good or viable, and what is broken or must be discarded. While looking at this image, if you have been drawn to the Eucharist, and if it’s been a while since your last confession, what are you waiting for or avoiding? If you are drawn to the men and women in the Church Militant, perhaps God is calling you to lean towards the truth and seek it out. Join a bible study or start one! Christ calls us to be people of action, so take some steps. How will you move forward?