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How churches bear witness to the ordinary practice of taking communion

This blog post focuses on an altarpiece from the late 15th century in a small village in southern Denmark, and in particular on the post-Reformation inscriptions on the predella. These inscriptions are significant in a liturgical, historical perspective since they address the communicants directly. The inscriptions on the predella can provide us with insights into the beliefs, assumptions and liturgical practices associated with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Altar piece in Højst Church, Diocese of Ribe, Southern Denmark. Photo from www.hostrup-hoejst.dk
The right-side panel of the predella with the inscription on the salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. Private photography by the author, 2020.
The left-side panel of the predella with the inscription on the salvation through the body of Jesus Christ. Private photography by the author, 2020.

Church buildings and their interior as a source of lived religious practice
How can a timespan of a handful of centuries be overcome when researchers aim to gain a closer understanding of the actual practices of ordinary people in the past? One way is to examine church buildings, and more specifically their interior. Decorative and mundane items such as pulpits, altarpieces, pews, epitaphs and liturgical vessels often bear witness to the ways in which people have engaged in the practices of common or solitary liturgical acts. Investigating old church buildings and the interior items from a material and liturgical historical perspective may well help to generate interesting knowledge of these practices. For now, we will turn our attention towards a specific liturgical act: the Lord’s Supper. Interior items may shed light on a question which is otherwise left to literary descriptions or depictions in artworks: how was the Lord’s Supper liturgically enacted and lived out by ordinary people within the architectural framework of church buildings? The original context of the interior items and their relation to the lived religious practice that was enacted and celebrated in the past stand at the centre of this examination, complementing the knowledge derived from liturgical writings such as agendas, prayers and hymnals. Although rich in detail, liturgical agendas are often aimed at the clergy as liturgical leaders and can thus hardly be seen as a witness to actual practice. But altars, their decoration and artwork, aimed at being visible to the communicants during the Lord’s Supper, may prove to be a valuable material source in gaining liturgical, historical insights into how ordinary people took part in this particular sacrament and perceived their participation in it.

The change in altarpieces
During the consolidation of the Reformation in Denmark, the Catholic churches were re-arranged in accordance with the new confession. This re-arrangement was not a single event but consisted of various theological tendencies and changes in worship through changing historical circumstances. The changing theological scope of different eras can be found in the interior items of churches, as well: in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the older pre-Reformation altarpieces underwent significant changes. While some altarpieces were completely replaced by catechismal pieces whose central motif consisted of decorative inscriptions, others were layered with new decorative inscriptions, often the Words of Institution. This inscription proved helpful in assisting the pastors during the consecration of the host and wine, but it seems obvious that they were designed with a figurative liturgical function as well, aimed at having a visual impact on the communicants. Combined with altarpieces illustrating the Last Supper or scenes from the Crucifixion, these decorative inscriptions retained a focus on what communicants needed to internalise about the central aspects of the Lord’s Supper. Moreover, some of the inscriptions on the altars address the ordinary people directly. These kinds of inscriptions reveal how the communicants were intended to respond to the act of communion, or what kind of devotional attitude they were intended to adopt during communion. These kinds of inscription provide us with insights into the beliefs, assumptions and liturgical practices associated with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

The inscriptions of predellae as devotional liturgical instruction for communicants
In the small village of Øster Højst, near Tønder and Løgumkloster in present-day Southern Jutland, the old altarpiece from the last decades of the 15th century underwent restoration and renewal in 1652 and again in 1702. The main artpiece in the central field consists of a wood-carved, painted depiction of the Crucifixion on Calvary. On the front of the predella is a painted artwork, probably from the restoration in 1702, of the Last Supper which has a close reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous artwork of the same scene. In 1702 the Words of Institution were added, as well.

It is particularly interesting that on both the left, northern panel of the predella and the right, southern panel of the predella there is an inscription from the 17th century which is well conserved and still visible. It is assumed to originate from the restoration in 1652. One panel in my translation states that “the body of Jesus Christ, the son of God, that I have now received in this bread, strengthen me and keep me in a true faith in Christ to life everlasting. Amen”. The other panel states that “the blood of Jesus Christ, the son of God, that I have now received in this wine, strengthen me and keep me in a true faith in Christ to life everlasting. Amen”.

These inscriptions address the communicants directly and are therefore of both material and liturgical historical interest. In combination with the other, mostly literary, sources, they provide us with insights into how the Lord’s Supper was enacted and how people received communion. From other material and liturgical sources, we know that ordinary people received bread on the left side and probably went behind the altar to receive the wine on the right side before returning to the nave. During the receiving of host and wine, they kneeled at a single bench or at the foot of the altar. When they kneeled, the inscription on the left and right panel of the predella were in direct eyesight and thus can only be seen as a liturgical devotional instruction for the communicants during the receiving of the host and wine. As liturgical devotional instructions, they facilitate the socialization of ordinary people into a specific religious practice while emphasising a specific confessional, sacramental theology and offering a narrative structure of what is going on, stressing the real presence of Christ and simultaneously defining the active-passive role of the communicants in the enactment and celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Through their active eating and drinking they receive Christ and eternal life, and the Lord’s Supper is instrumental in the strengthening of faith in the communicant. In the liturgical enactment of the Lord’s Supper, the ordinary people are brought close to a strong sense of presence, and the inscription embodies a liturgical anamnesis combining the past, present and future.