In the sixteenth century, as Western Christianity began fracturing, Roman Catholic apologetics defended the doctrine of transubstantiation by elaborating on images of Christ in the winepress. A prime example, this window in St Étienne du Mont visually proclaims the unity of the consecrated wine of the Mass with Christ’s blood which it dubs ‘the nectar of life’.
Christ lies in the winepress, his blood flowing into it. Attached to the winepress’s screws, the cross crushes him. In the upper left, patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible tend ‘the vineyard of Jesus’. Below them, St Peter treads grapes in a barrel, his proximity to Christ’s head highlighting his role—and implicitly the Pope’s—as Vicar of Christ. Beneath Peter, a group carries a cask of the precious blood towards the four Doctors of the Church—Gregory the Great, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine—who fill barrels with grapes and Christ’s blood. On the right, two monarchs assist a pope and cardinal in storing the consecrated wine. Above Christ, the four zoomorphic Evangelists pull a chariot laden with a wine cask towards the steps of a church where confessions are heard and the Eucharist is distributed.
Today, seeking to build bridges rather than to hurl anathemas, perhaps we can mine the Church’s tradition to discover new ways of viewing and reading this luminous window. In the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan (in The Holy Spirit) likened the Church herself to the mystical winepress. Similarly, Augustine exhorted his congregation to imitate Christ, ‘the first grape’, by stepping ‘into the winepress’ and being ‘ready for the pressing’ (Boulding 2001: 85). By portraying a Church gathered around Christ and extending through time and space, St Étienne’s mystical winepress encourages all Christians to become ‘ready for the pressing’ and to share the gospel with a weary world that thirsts for ‘the nectar of life’.
Ambrose of Milan. On the Holy Spirit. 1963. Theological and Dogmatic Works, Fathers of the Church, vol. 44, trans. by Roy J. Deferrari (Washington: Catholic University of American Press)
Boulding, Maria (trans.). 2001. Exposition of Psalm 55, in The Works of St Augustine: Expositions of the Psalms, vol. III/17, ed. by John E. Rotelle (New York: New City Press), pp. 81–102
Mâle, Emile. 1986. Religious Art in France: The Late Middle Ages: A Study of Medieval Iconography and its Sources, trans. by Marthiel Mathews (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
Thomas, Alois. 1981. Die Darstellung Christi in der Kelter (Düsseldorf: Schwann)
63Who is this that comes from Edom,
in crimsoned garments from Bozrah,
he that is glorious in his apparel,
marching in the greatness of his strength?
“It is I, announcing vindication,
mighty to save.”
2Why is thy apparel red,
and thy garments like his that treads in the wine press?
3“I have trodden the wine press alone,
and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
and trampled them in my wrath;
their lifeblood is sprinkled upon my garments,
and I have stained all my raiment.
4For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
and my year of redemption has come.
5I looked, but there was no one to help;
I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold;
so my own arm brought me victory,
and my wrath upheld me.
6I trod down the peoples in my anger,
I made them drunk in my wrath,
and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”
7I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us,
and the great goodness to the house of Israel
which he has granted them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
8For he said, Surely they are my people,
sons who will not deal falsely;
and he became their Savior.
9In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
10But they rebelled
and grieved his holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
and himself fought against them.
11Then he remembered the days of old,
of Moses his servant.
Where is he who brought up out of the sea
the shepherds of his flock?
Where is he who put in the midst of them
his holy Spirit,
12who caused his glorious arm
to go at the right hand of Moses,
who divided the waters before them
to make for himself an everlasting name,
13who led them through the depths?
Like a horse in the desert,
they did not stumble.
14Like cattle that go down into the valley,
the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest.
So thou didst lead thy people,
to make for thyself a glorious name.