Eleonora of Aragon, commemorated by the altarpiece for which Ercole de’ Roberti’s predella panel was made, was particularly devoted to the Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ (the eucharistic host). Christ’s dead body, stretched across his mother’s knees was the focus of the main panel of the altarpiece.
The predella panel showing the Israelites gathering manna was originally situated directly to the left of a ciborium—a compartment that held the host—incorporated into the predella. Ercole painted the ciborium door with The Institution of the Eucharist (The National Gallery, London, NG1127).
Thus—reading from left to right—the manna literally precedes and prefigures the body of Christ, the bread of the Eucharist, the true bread of heaven as described in John 6:58.
The first part of John 6 recounts the miracle of the bread and the loaves (vv.1–14) when Jesus fed the 5000. But, according to John, the Jews continued to ask him for a sign (v.30)—one like the manna that God gave to their Hebrew forefathers in the desert, as told in Exodus 16. At the time this altarpiece was made, Christ’s claim that he was the true manna, the Bread of Life, was interpreted typologically (Hylen 2007: 137). The manna foreshadowed the bread of the Eucharist and the nourishment provided by Christ’s body.
The inscription on Augustus Pugin’s bread plate is a reminder of the sacred nature of this staple in daily life. The exhortation to ‘waste not, want not’, in religiously-symbolic and somewhat forbidding Gothic script, demands respect for this most essential and timeless food. The motto also recalls Moses’s command to the Israelites that they collect and consume as much as they could, for the bread would rot and perish if they did not (Exodus 16:20–21).
The rot of the manna is the rot of the physical body and all material things. As Jesus told his hearers in reference to the manna: ‘Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you’ (John 6:27). Pugin’s plate is a reminder, though, of the importance of material types in their reference to spiritual things: manna/bread symbolizes, or even transforms into, the heavenly body. One might extend this analogy to the Gospels: their words are human and centre upon the divine Son’s incarnation in mortal flesh, but they are fundamentally concerned with the Kingdom of Heaven.
The origins of the Man of Sorrows of Masolino’s fresco, the inspiration for Bill Viola’s work, lie in Byzantium but it became popular in Italy in the thirteenth century on account of its association with Pope Gregory the Great’s vision in which Christ appeared in this form—after death, standing in his tomb—as Gregory was celebrating Mass. The miracle was thought to prove the reality of transubstantiation. As displayed in this form, Christ’s body is shown to be the real eucharistic body, the sacramental fulfilment of Pugin’s bread.
Viola’s video finishes in a Lamentation scene: the body of the young man lying, limp, in the arms of the two women like that in Ercole’s altarpiece. In Emergence Viola conveys both the religious and secular inflections of The Passions, the title of the series, conflating emotional responses with physical suffering through the medium of the body.
By enlivening (literally animating) the witnesses to this appearance of physical suffering through the engaging and emotive medium of video, Viola uses all three bodies to convey recognizable and shareable emotions. The suffering of the pale and bloodless body is transferred to the women and through them to us, and so we meditate upon his and our mortality.
Like bread itself, all three artworks have a communal aspect, which can speak to the communality that is centre-stage in Exodus 16. Viola’s video invites humane identification with personal suffering; it establishes fellowship. The daily bread on Pugin’s plate reminds us of our shared bodily dependence on physical nourishment. The consecrated host within Ercole’s ciborium constitutes a communion of eucharistic participants as Exodus’s miraculous bread constituted a community of manna gatherers.
Viola’s pale youth in his tomb is not so much ‘rescued’ as embraced: received. The women as Viola describes them are midwives of a ‘rebirth’ and emergence—accompanied by overflowing water—a reminder of baptism and new life. ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35).
Hylen, Susan. 2005. Allusion and Meaning in John 6, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 137 (Berlin: De Gruyter)