WARNING! Gazing upon Cosimo Rosselli’s Last Supper may forever change the way you go to Mass.
Many Renaissance artists devoted their brush to this beloved page from
the life of Christ—Da Vinci, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, to name a few—but Rosselli’s portrayal inside
the Sistine Chapel is
In the foreground, Christ celebrates the Passover
liturgy inside an octagonal chamber. It just so happens that in Rosselli’s day an edifice with this
same shape was unearthed on the Aventine hill—none other than the Domus Aurea, Nero’s imperial villa. By cladding the Upper Room in this way, Rosselli
encoded a message in his fresco: the eternal high priest, Jesus Christ—ever ancient, ever new—reigns
today as the King of kings.
But look to the windows for the real stroke of genius.
The same Christ who blesses the cup simultaneously prays in the garden of Gethsemane (left window),
is arrested (central window), and is crucified (right window). The three chronologically ordered
frames form one single landscape, linked by a winding footpath.
What is Rosselli trying to say?
Half a millenium later, Vatican II seemed to answer that question: "As
often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on
the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out." (Lumengentium3
The Bible comes to life in the liturgy, which
re-presents and re-actualizes the mysteries it celebrates. It’s an idea that goes back to the Old
Testament. The Jews celebrated God’s interventions with a memorial that made present what it
signified. Here and now. To me! The Passover, for instance, was commemorated down through the
centuries by saying, “It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of
Egypt” (Ex 13:8
Christians inherit this patrimony. “In the liturgy of
the Church, it is principally his own Paschal mystery that Christ signifies and makes present” (CCC 1085
So if at Mass you would wonder about what is going on
beyond those stained-glass windows, know that your musings pale in comparison to the true splendor.
See God’s saving events flash before you. The Lord thrusts the planets into their orbits, breathes
Adam into life, tosses Noah up and over the billowing waves, tears them apart to let Israel pass
through the Red Sea, rains down manna from heaven. The snapshots come faster now. A star, a manger,
a babe. Palms and a donkey, Judas and Malchus, dice and a tunic. Mourners in a rock-hewn tomb,
angels in a garden, apostles in the upper room. “Peace be with you!” Christ ascends on a cloud; The
Holy Spirit descends in fire.
Aware of an ineffable majesty, the priest rises after the words of consecration and can barely
utter, “The mystery of faith!”
This sacramental vision is as dizzying as it is glorious. How can I be there? Isn’t the Paschal
mystery a real event that occurred “once and for all” in history?
Yes, “but it is unique: all other historical events happen once, and then
they pass away, swallowed up in the past. The Paschal mystery of Christ, by contrast, cannot remain
only in the past, because by his death he destroyed death, and all that Christ is—all that he did
and suffered for all men—participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while
being made present in them all” (CCC 1085).
So if you want to wonder what the
angels behold at Mass, look out the windows. Be distracted! Just don’t tell your parish priest I
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