Still Life of Flowers and Grapes encircling a Monstrance in a Niche by Jan van Kessel

Jan van Kessel

Still Life of Flowers and Grapes encircling a Monstrance in a Niche, c.1670, Oil on copper, 70 x 105.5 cm, National Gallery Scotland; Purchased 2002, NG 2740, Antonia Reeve, National Gallery Scotland

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A Summons to Attention

Commentary by

In Philippians 4:8, Paul instructs his readers to ‘think about’ (logizesthe) whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, and gracious. A favourite term of the apostle, this Greek word implies a specific kind of thinking, something more than fleeting consideration: by using logizesthe, Paul calls the Philippians to dwell over time on all that is excellent and worthy of praise (Thurston and Ryan 2009: 147).

In this painting, Flemish artist Jan van Kessel bids his viewer to meditate in precisely this way by rendering one of the most recognizable signs of the Christian faith as an object worthy of ceaseless devotion. This provocative Roman Catholic image belongs to an artistic genre known as ‘garland paintings’, a type which developed as a Counter-Reformation response to the Protestant reproach of images. At the centre of the painting, we see the principal sign of the Roman liturgy—a Eucharistic host (bread that has been consecrated during worship), set in a monstrance (a liturgical container used to display the Blessed Sacrament) and placed into a niche for our perpetual contemplation.

The word ‘monstrance’ comes from the Latin monstrāre, ‘to show’: its purpose is to make visible the sign of an invisible grace, Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. On the stone frame surrounding the niche is written: ECCE PANE AENG, ‘Behold the bread of Angels’, underscoring this holy mystery. Surrounding the monstrance are emblems of nature’s abundant goodness—grapes, corn, and wheat (the material substances of the Eucharistic feast) in carved cornucopia, and elegant bouquets of flowers. The delicately painted roses, tulips, and poppies are particularly arresting, but these naturalistic flowers are destined to wither and wilt: we would be foolish to focus on such fleeting beauty. Our gaze must move beyond these to the plain white wafer, the only object worthy of our full attention. By presenting this heavenly food for our adoration and reflection, Van Kessel offers us an image through which we might cultivate a habit of logizesthe, perpetual contemplation of this cherished sign of Christian virtue.

 

References

Thurston, Bonnie B., and Judith Ryan. 2009. Philippians and Philemon, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville: Liturgical Press)