The Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, occurrs 60 days after Easter and thus falls in early summer, in June or July. The Feast was formally established in 1215, when the Church asserted that what occurred during the mass was the miracle of transubstantiation; that is, that the wafer of consecrated bread did not simply represent the body of Christ but actually became it. As celebrated in the fourteenth century, the Feast included a procession during which the Holy Host was generally carried through or around the town, followed by a parade of important locals. The picture above was taken on June 14, 1998, in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, France, where a schismatic sect of ultra-conservative Catholics still perform a traditional Corpus Christi procession. Flavigny is a walled medieval village, and the Host is carried around the walls and then through the town; handfuls of rose petals are cast before the feet of the seminarians who carry it. In the middle ages, the Host would have come to rest finally in the parish church; nowadays, it returns to the Intégriste Seminary; the "important people" who follow it come from miles away to do so, and their cars are often distinguished by Royalist bumperstickers. If you look closely, you can see the monstrance in which the Eucharist is carried, directly below the cross embroidered on the canopy.
[Source: Michael Camille, Gothic Art: Glorious Visions (New York: Abrams 1996)]
This picture of the Elevation of the Host, from a prayerbook intended for laypeople and dated about 1320, both literalizes and dramatizes the concept of transubstantiation. The figure of Christ upon the Crucifix has become real and blood gushes from it onto the Host, indicating the complete identity between body and bread. The miracle is witnessed by an audience of ordinary people, both male and female, demonstrating the popular appeal of eucharistic devotion.
In England, the Feast of Corpus Christi became associated with the performance of "cycle dramas", groups of plays which recounted the sacred history of the universe from the Creation until Doomsday. The image below, which represents the apparition of Christ to Gregory the Great in the 6th century but was painted in Germany in the late 15th century, may help to suggest why. Here the altar becomes a stage upon which the miracle of the transformation of bread into Christ's body is performed. Note that the figures appearing behind Christ appear to be the other "actors" in the Passion Play: the soldiers who mock him, the king who condemns him, etc. Once again, the worshippers, this time including a variety of saints and ecclesiastics, function as an audience.
[Mass of St Gregory, 1486, by the Master of the Holy Kinship. Source: Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
The institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi is clearly related to the increased interest during the Late Middle Ages in Christ's humanity, in the physical body of Christ, and in physically demonstrated forms of devotion; these ranged from performance in the usual, deliberate sense (performance of plays recounting the life of Christ, for instance) and performative corporeal acts in which the body of the worshipper became united through mystical or paramystical phenomena with that of Christ. The gothic period is full of accounts of miraculous inedia in women who lived for years on nothing but the Holy Host, of stigmatism, and of a variety of other unusual bodily occurences.
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