holy days

 ... God in the Arts - exploring symbols of the Christian faith

Editor:  The Revd Michael Burgess (Parish Pump, UK) continues his series on God in the Arts with a famous painting by Dirk Bouts. It is found in the church of St Peter in Louvain.


A meal to remember!

When we gather with other Christians to celebrate the Eucharist and to make our communion, we are remembering that special meal Jesus shared with His disciples on the eve of His arrest and death. But do we always appreciate what we are doing? Sometimes the monotony of repetition and distractions will get in the way. We fail to recognise Christ’s gift at communion for what it truly is.

In the 15th century the prosperous burghers of the Flemish town of Louvain commissioned the artist Dirk Bouts to paint a special altarpiece devoted to the Eucharist for the church of St Peter. Dirk Bouts, with his imagination, portrayed the Last Supper in a room looking out to his own town of Louvain. The faces of the servers in the room and the cooks looking through the hatch were modelled on the burghers who commissioned the work.

Other faces are modelled on theologians at the new university who visited the artist. They wanted to ensure he kept his theological feet on the ground while his imagination took flight. And so around the scene of the Last Supper, Bouts has painted Old Testament scenes foreshadowing that holy communion: Melchizedek offering bread and wine in return for Abraham’s offering, the eating of the first Passover, the gathering of the manna in the wilderness, and Elijah wakened by the angel to eat and drink before setting out for Horeb. Signs of sacrifice, the Passover of the old covenant, daily food and food for the journey – all key aspects of the communion we celebrate and share in.

Just as the theological faculty reminded Dirk Bouts of all these facets, so the artist is reminding us of the richness of the distinctive meal we have as Christians. When we see the bread and wine taken up and offered, we remember not only the Last Supper, when Jesus fed His disciples with the sacrifice of His life, but those occasions when God reached out to feed His people of old. We rejoice that the food our Lord gives us in the Eucharist feeds us now and enables us to make our journey through life to the eternal banquet offered in the heavenly kingdom.