Giovanni Bellini painted this small panel in Venice early in his career, around 1460. The panel was probably—not certainly—designed for the door of a tabernacle: a small cupboard in which the elements of the Mass, once consecrated, could be stored on or near an altar. The four empty areas around Jesus’s lower legs were once the heads—in reds, blues, and gold—of cherubs among clouds. At some time and for some reason, both unknown, these were scraped off.
Even without the angels, the scene is strange enough.
The painting’s motifs were familiar in the fifteenth century when stylized images of the Passion and its instruments (the crown of thorns, nails, lance, etc.) were used to prompt sorrow, pity, remorse, and a deepening dedication to Christ and to a new life. The wounds of Christ were a special focus of devotion, and in particular the spear-wound in his side, from which sprang blood and water (John 19:35). This was the wound to Christ’s heart from which flowed his cleansing blood, the mother’s milk of our new birth, the fountain of life, and (in the wine-and-water of the Eucharist) the drink of immortality.
That spring of Christ’s blood, perhaps almost repellent to us now, was topical then. It raised an acute question. The blood of Jesus shed at his Passion had thereby been detached from his body before the event of his resurrection. Was such blood divine (and so a fitting focus for worship) or merely human (and so only for a lesser veneration)? This affected the devotional status of blood-relics. The Dominicans answered, divine; the Franciscans disagreed. Bellini’s painting is surely based on the Dominicans’ view.
There is no hiatus between the blood flowing from Christ’s side into the angel’s chalice and the blood offered at the Eucharist. ‘This is my blood’, said Jesus over the wine at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:28). It is as though he says it again in Bellini’s painting—directly to us.
9 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. 2For a tent was prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence; it is called the Holy Place. 3Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies, 4having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; 5above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go continually into the outer tent, performing their ritual duties; 7but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people. 8By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary is not yet opened as long as the outer tent is still standing 9(which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10but deal only with food and drink and various ablutions, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, 14how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. 16For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. 19For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” 21And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; 26for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.