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 which extends 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)