This work, entitled Allegory of the Eucharist, was painted by Alexander Coosemans. Born in Antwerp in 1627, Coosemans studied with Jan de Heem, whose painting Host and Chalice with Garlands (right) dates from 1648. It may be that Heem’s painting served as a model for his student; Coosemans’ treatment of this subject dates from the latter half of the seventeenth century. Like his teacher, Coosemans was an exceptional still-life painter: his works often featured fruit and game animals, and in keeping with the artistic style of this time period, they were highly symbolic. In this particular work, the artist incorporates a sacred subject into a still-life laden with symbolism, creating a profound theological statement.
Detailed, realistic lavishness is a trademark of still-life painting from this time period, and we see this here in the representation of the produce. When considered in light of the title—Allegory of the Eucharist—the abundance of food symbolizes the bounty of creation and the providence of God. The cornucopias flanking the niche as well as the table overflow with beautifully arranged produce, and each item has a symbolic meaning. We see a Eucharistic reference in the stalks of wheat and bunches of red and green grapes—the earthly elements from which the bread and wine are made that are offered for consecration in the Mass. In addition, the cornucopia on our left contains an ear of corn and a rose. For a seventeenth-century audience, corn also symbolized the Eucharist, while the rose stood for religious love.
The cornucopia on our right contains quinces and peaches in addition to the wheat and grapes, and the arrangement in the foreground contains grapes, lemons, peaches, and pomegranates. Both the pomegranate and the quince are symbols of plenty, of fertility and marriage, as well as immortality. Their inclusion calls to mind the nuptial imagery in the relationship between Christ the Bridegroom and the Church, His Bride, and how that relationship is celebrated in the Eucharist. They also point to the promise of eternal life to all who are united to Christ in the Eucharist. Lemons here are associated with extravagance: as an imported fruit, they cost a great deal. In this Christian art tradition, lemons also represent fidelity, and are strongly connected to the Virgin Mary.
It is significant, then, that the lemons are at the bottom of the painting, calling to mind Mary’s stance at the foot of the Cross. Finally, whole peaches symbolize salvation and truth, as well as fecundity. A peach cut in half, such as the one in the bottom arrangement, represents the human tendency to excess. It is a reminder of human frailty and mortality, and its inclusion is perhaps intended to set viewers on their guard against excess that leads to sin. Yet only one sliced peach can be seen amid the rest of the produce, suggesting that God’s providential love far outweighs our human frailty.
Yet here, in the midst of sumptuous, delicious fare, stands the Eucharist, drawing our gaze away even from the bounty of creation, reminding us that the gift of Jesus, the Word-made-flesh now truly present under the veil of bread and wine, is the greatest gift in the history of creation and the crowning glory of God’s abundant generosity. So, turning our attention from the produce to the central subject of the chalice and host, we notice the incredibly rich, realistic detail of the light reflecting off the gold, as well as the subtle detailing of the host itself. The host comprises the only use of the color white in this entire composition, thereby contributing to its uniqueness and other-worldliness, as well as its simplicity. The starkness of the host in comparison to the lush fruit surrounding it calls to mind the words of Simone Weil: “At the center of the Catholic religion a little formless matter is found, a little piece of bread” (“Forms Implicit in the Love of God” from Waiting for God, 199).
Rays of golden light emanate from the host, within which we see a translucent depiction of the crucified Christ. The artist here recalls Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary that is re-presented in every celebration of the Eucharist, and the translucence of the image testifies to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species, though the outer forms of bread and wine appear unchanged. In this allegorical painting, the artist reminds us that the Eucharist is the source of abundant life for those who are able to gaze upon the host and see Jesus truly present. Placed in a niche at the center of the fruits of the earth, a place of honor, the Eucharist is shown here to be the source of true nourishment. What surrounds it is food for the body, but here in the Eucharist, here is food for the soul.
All images are courtesy of ARTstor.