The Mass in Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments

Seven_Sacraments_Rogier

The Seven Sacrament altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden is now in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.  It was painted between 1445 and 1450 when van der Weyden was in Brussels and is generally held to have been commissioned for a church in Poligny in the Jura département in eastern France.  It is a fixed-wing triptych, with a complex scene that continues across the three divisions of the altarpiece.  The central focus of the iconography is a large Crucifixion scene with attendant figures set up in the centre of the nave of a late Gothic Flemish church.  It’s a large church with double side aisles and an apsidal east end with an ambulatory.  The Seven Sacraments are shown being acted out in the church itself, primarily in the side aisles.

In this article, I’m not going to look in any depth at the Sacraments as a whole, as I’m interested in focusing here on only one of them: the Mass.  In this complex image, there are three separate depictions of the Mass, all going on concurrently.  I’m interested in thinking through what these depictions of the Mass might reveal to us about the use of space, the purpose of divisions within a church building and how fifteenth-century lay people encountered the liturgical action and experienced the Mass.

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A mass is taking place at an altar up against the chancel screen, the priest assisted by a layman with an elevation torch.

Behind the central Crucifixion, we can see that there is a division between the nave and the chancel of this large Flemish church in the form of a chancel screen. The screen in part a barrier, physically and visually it reveals and hides action going on behind it, but it is primarily presented here as a backdrop against which the celebration of the Mass takes place.  In a recess in the screen is an altar, presumably dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as there is a reredos above it with her image.   A priest is celebrating the Mass here and he has come to the most solemn moment of it, the Elevation of the Host. We might think of the late medieval Mass as a little-understood ceremonial taking place apart from the people in a clericalised, screened off zone. This celebration of the Mass is in the nave the people’s space and in proximity to them –  the sacred species is show here confected among the hurly-burly of this busy place; God incarnate comes sacramentally into the midst of his people.

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A layman in a grey doublet stands some distance from the screen altar witnessing the elevation of the host.

The laity are not kept at a distance in this tableau but play an integral part in this offering of the Mass. As the priest elevates the host, a layman in fine clothing, a purple doublet and red hose, holds an elevation torch and he lifts the base of the priest’s chasuble.  There is no fear here of any proximity to the divine.  Standing between two pillars is a man in a grey, his hand on the knife at his belt with his hat on the other, he focuses his attention on the host; today he has seen his maker.

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A mass is taking place in a chancel side chapel beyond a parclose screen.  Lay people are gathered within the space.

If we move to the left-hand panel of the painting to a depiction of a side aisle of this great church, we see a chapel at the end of the aisle, screened off.  There is an altar here surrounded by riddels, with an altarpiece, a wooden tabernacle containing the image of the saints.  A priest in a blue chasuble turns to the people, perhaps he’s turned to say ‘Orate fratres et sorores’ to ask his brothers and sisters to pray for him as he begins the Canon of the Mass and begins to offer the sacrifice on their behalf.   It’s important to note that those who are witnessing this Mass taking place are within the screened off chapel.  There is a group of men and women, just within the screen to the left and there is another figure on the right of the entrance who appears to be busy with his primer.  Just below the altar step is a figure dressed in a green doublet with a purple liripipe over his shoulder.  Here the screen of this chapel acts not as a barrier to keep the laity at a distance from the holy, but as an enclosure in which men and women seeking Christ’s presence are welcome.  The screen exists only to demark the particularity of this liturgical space.

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A mass is taking place in the chancel beyond the chancel screen.

Then there is the third celebration of the Mass depicted in this painting, but we only get a glimpse of it.  In the choir screen, there are two gates and these give us a restricted view beyond to the chancel of the church.  Our restricted view gives us enough visual information to be able to determine that solemn celebration, a high mass is underway there.  We see through the left gate the deacon of the Mass in his dalmatic, where he appears to be reading the liturgical gospel from an eagle lectern.  This lectern itself is placed just where you would expect it, below the footpace of the altar and we can see the edge of the altar itself, enclosed with riddel posts with figures of angels on the top and with a green frontal.  A missal is open on a lectern on the altar itself.  We can see no more of the altar and cannot see the priest and the other ministers.

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The Deacon singing the gospel at a lectern in the chancel.
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A couple stand in a chancel aisle viewing the mass taking place in the chancel.

There is a further visual clue that shows that a Mass is underway in the chancel.  Through the right-hand gate of the choir screen, we can see the arcade that divides the chancel from an ambulatory and there are no screens to create a division between these spaces.  Beyond, standing in the ambulatory itself are two figures. The first is a man in a blue doublet who appears to be looking across the chancel to where the deacon is reading the gospel.  His wife stands beside him, dressed in a purple and black gown, she is reading and concentrating on her primer in its white chemise covering.  These people are standing at a reverential distance from the action in the chancel, but they are not shut out; without screens under the arcade, they will have had an uninterrupted view of the action, an action that is hidden from our eyes by the choir screen.  The liturgical action in the chancel is clearly more complex than in the other two Masses and the distance of those lay people is probably explained not by a desire to keep away from the holy, but through a need to allow the complex liturgical action to take place unhindered.

One thing to notice about these three depictions of the Mass in Van der Weyden’s painting is that they are at different stages in the celebration.  Those stages in the liturgical action are more or less evenly spaced out and the elevations of the host would have been staggered.  The celebration at the high altar has only got as far as the Gospel; that in the side chapel has got as far as the beginning of the Canon of the Mass and the most prominent celebration in the nave has reached the moment of liturgical climax: the elevation of the host.  Late medieval churches were busy places were complex liturgical action took place concurrently and the if this paintings observation is any evidence, that action took place in close proximity to the people.

2 thoughts on “The Mass in Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments

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  1. Thank you again – fascinating. I’ve seen this painting in the flesh, and I wish I’d read this first. Best wishes Delyth

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