Compendium of the Catechism

57

The Church’s Book of Questions and Answers

The Art of the Compendium is a visual synthesis of our Faith

The images for the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church were chosen by Pope Benedict. Each work of art can be seen as a ‘window’ to the Christian mystery expressed in it. Anyone who spent time seeking to understand and appreciate these ‘windows’ would have a rich insight into the truths of the faith which it also sets out in the more matter-of-fact form of Questions and Answers. Subsequent to the opening icon of Jesus Christ depicted as Teacher and ‘Ruler of All’, the art of the Compendium presents a visual synthesis of the Faith of the Church which can be summarised like this:

Part 1: The Profession of Faith

The encounter between God and humankind in Christ (The Adoration of the Magi)
which was in the mind of God from the beginning (The Days of Creation)
culminated in the life-giving death of Jesus on the Cross (The Tree of Life).

Part 2: The Celebration of the Christian Mystery

This life-giving death is celebrated and made present through the ages in the Eucharist (Communion of the Apostles)through the agency of the Church (Mother of the Redeemer Mosaic) and her Sacraments: (Seven Sacraments Triptych).

Part 3: Life in Christ

Through union with Christ in the Sacraments (Last Supper) we are able to live the life of Christ. We have as our model, Mary, the first and perfect disciple and mother and model of the Church (St John contemplating the immaculate Conception) and we have the law of Christ, set out for us most explicitly in the (Sermon on the Mount).

Part 4: Christian Prayer

So, united in the Holy Spirit through prayer (Icon of Pentecost),
to the mysteries of Christ through the Church’s Liturgy (Icon of the Main Liturgical Feasts),
and drawing upon the example of Jesus own prayer and the words he taught us (Jesus at Prayer in Gethsemane), we are ready to fulfil the purpose for which we were created: to know love and serve God and each other and join in the cosmic hymn of praise (Angelic Singers).

Two other aspects of the Compendium which add to its interest and value are the extracts from the writings of the Saints which are interspersed through out the text and the collection of traditional prayers which conclude it.

Acknowledgements

All images in this unit are used with permission of the Vatican editors of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church excepting the following whose permission we acknowledge:

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp: Triptych of the Seven Sacraments Rogier Van der Weyden
The Toledo Museum of Art: Jesus At Prayer in Gethsemane El Greco
Br Lawrence Lew OP: Photograph of the Tree of Life apse mosaic San Clemente Rome
The Uffizi Gallery: The Adoration of the Magi Gentile Da Fabriano and The Sermon on the Mount Fra Angelico

The Introductory Icon

The opening image Christ Pantocrator

The very first image in the Compendium, placed even before the Introduction by Pope Benedict XVI, is an icon of Jesus Christ, Pantocrator, literally, ‘Ruler of All’, originally made by Theophanos of Crete in 1456 for a monastery on Mount Athos. It is appropriate that it is the opening image in the Compendium because Jesus is, himself, the entry to Christian life. ‘I tell you most solemnly, I am the gate’ (John 10:7). Jesus Christ is the source of

  • all that Christians believe (Compendium Part 1),
  • all that we celebrate (Compendium Part 2),
  • how we ought live (Compendium Part 3), and
  • how we pray (Compendium Part 4).

About the icon

The golden background of this icon and the light shining on the face of Jesus suggests the glory of heaven where Christ dwells forever in union with the Father through the Holy Spirit. While the eyes of Jesus are upon us, his gaze is directed toward eternal life in the heart of God. He is present to us as he promised ‘until the end of time’, yet drawing us beyond time. His right hand, raised in the gesture of the teacher, is also a creed in miniature as the joined thumb and fourth finger form a circle, symbol of God who has no beginning and no end. The raised fifth finger indicates the oneness of God while the second and third fingers indicate the two natures of Christ: his divinity and his humanity. There is a helpful tension in the icon between Christ, the Ruler of All, just, almighty and transcendent and Christ, the gentle and compassionate with intimate and infinite understanding of what it is to be human.

When we look at icons it is more important to be open to what they say and do to us than to puzzle over what we actually make of them. In this sense they are deeply sacramental.

However, two articles you might find helpful in discovering icons are firstly, one which introduces the type of art they are, and a second which explores their ‘language. Icons reflect a different conception of space and time. Typically, they are flat and perspective is absent, expressions are rather stylised and sometimes several scenes are depicted simultaneously. These conventions help the person looking at the icon to realise that what is being contemplated does not belong only to our understanding of time and space but to spiritual realities.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

 

For Reflection/Discussion

  • Allow some time to look into the eyes of this icon. Do you feel confronted or consoled by the face of Christ or perhaps both? Try to describe the responses it evokes in you, either positive or negative and reflect on them.
  • Why might Pope Benedict have chosen this icon as the frontispiece to the whole Compendium?
  • ‘To have seen me is to have seen the Father’ ( John 14:8) What does this icon of Christ reveal about God?
  • Imagine the stories of the people whom over 500 years have prayed and meditated before this icon of Christ and what those eyes have seen of the human condition. Express a response in story, music or art (your own or another’s).
  • With this icon and with some of the other artworks of the Compendium, you might want to practice what some have termed Visio Divina. As its name suggests it is a way of praying with images, based on the traditional practice of Lectio Divina There are four steps:
    Visio: In this first movement of the prayer, you simply look at the icon or artwork in its entirety and allow your eye to be caught by whatever aspect of it that attracts, stirs, disturbs or moves you.  
    Meditatio: In the second movement of the prayer, focus on the aspect of the icon or artwork that you have chosen and turn it over in your mind allowing all the associations or feelings or images relating to it to unfold within you. Consider what God is inviting you to through this particular part of the picture and how it speaks to your life and immediate experience.
    Oratio: In the third movement of the prayer, speak to God in prayer, giving inner voice to your responses and questions, hopes and hesitations and how you might respond to what God is offering or requiring of you.
    Contemplatio: The fourth movement is the invitation to rest in God. To simply be present in silence, and let go of thoughts, meanings, images and feelings.
    To bring the time of prayer to a close, conclude with a Glory be or the Sign of the Cross.

The Profession Of Faith – What we believe

PART ONE: THE PROFESSION OF FAITH

The First Image:  The Adoration of the Magi

The first part of the Compendium explores what we believe as Christians. It begins by considering the mystery of God, explores human origins and human capacity for God, revelation and sacred scripture then goes on to examine the affirmations of the Creed. The Adoration of the Magi painted by Gentile Da Fabriano in 1423 introduces this first part of the Compendium.

About the painting

The picture in the Compendium is a detail of a larger work which represents the account in Matthew 2:1-12 of the visit of wise men from the East. It depicts the encounter between God, who in Christ, the wisdom of God comes to dwell among us, and human wisdom, personified by the Magi, who respond in worship. It is about the great longing in the human heart to find the source of life and also about the happiness of finding it. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” (Augustine of Hippo)

The liturgical feast which celebrates this manifestation of Christ to the world is known as the feast of the Epiphany. It celebrates both God’s gracious self revelation in Christ and the long journey of humanity, somehow separated from its Creator by the aberration of sin, coming at last to acknowledge the Redeemer.
Gentile da Fabriano would have drawn inspiration for his painting from the celebrations and processions surrounding the feast of Epiphany which were a feature of religious and cultural life in the city of Florence in the 15th century. Art historians say that Gentile Da Fabriano used the beautifully dressed participants in Florence’s annual Epiphany processions and celebrations as models for his picture. This use of the contemporary in the picture reminds us that this moment of recognition and adoration is not to be confined to the first century but is one to which human beings of all eras and regardless of age or status are invited.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

Reflection/Discussion Points

  • Since God could have chosen any point of encounter with humankind, what is the significance of the Christ being born in obscurity into the human family? How is it that we have come to believe in this Child as God’s Son?
  • What parallels are there between the journey of the Magi and your own journey of faith?
  • Describe a significant encounter in your lifetime. Where did it lead?
  • With which character/s in this picture do you identify? Tell your character’s story.
  • Is this picture and what it depicts, an answer to the U2 song ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’. Has everyone in this picture found what they are looking for?
  • Why does this Child mean so much to some and not much at all to others?
  • Sift through the Q&As and quotations (they are highlighted in blue boxes) in Part 1 Section 1 of the Compendium and find one that is, for you, the best caption for this picture.

The Second Image:  The Illumination of the Days of Creation

The Days of Creation is an illumination taken from the Souvigny Bible which dates back to the end of the twelfth century and is kept at the Library of Moulins, France. This image introduces Section One of Part One, ‘I believe’ – ‘We Believe’ which deals with a discussion of the relationship between human beings and God and begins with the proposition that God has a plan for humankind. It deals with the ‘big’ questions: Who is God? Who are we? Why are we here? Why do we suffer? How do we relate to each other and the world? The Church has always taught that the Creation narratives are fundamental to the way Christians understand human beings and the world in relationship to God.

About the picture

Despite being 900 years old, the illumination from the Souvigny Bible is a little like a modern ‘comic strip’. In eight frames it sets out in brilliant colours and simple but beautiful figures, the work of creation described in the Book of Genesis. The first frame is interesting because Christ (we know it is Christ because of the cross in the halo behind his head) is portrayed as the Creative Being: the pre-existent Word so eloquently proclaimed in the opening verses of John’s gospel. He holds in his hands roundels containing images of the head of a man and a woman facing each other, implying that from the first instant of creation, man and woman were in the mind of God. Christ is enclosed in a ring of fire and gold suggesting the invisible, immortal God. The Holy Spirit, represented by the traditional dove, hovers over the formless void as light is differentiated from darkness. The days of creation unfold until man and woman appear. The eighth image depicts the temptation which threatens to bring God’s plan undone.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

Reflection/discussion Points

  • Is this illustration of the Days of Creation meant to depict the scientific and historical facts about the origins of life or what happened theologically? Explain your answer.
  • In the very first frame what is the meaning of the fire, the figure of Christ and the dove and why is Christ holding images of a man and a woman?
  • What evidence is there in this series of illuminations of God’s plan for the world and human beings?
  • Who might have been the original audience for whom the artist painted these scenes of Creation?
  • What relationship between men and women is suggested by both the first and seventh frames of this illumination?
  • Sift through the Q&As and quotations (they are highlighted in blue boxes) in Part One, Section One of the Compendium and find one that is, for you, the best caption for this picture.

The Third Image:  The Cross from the apse mosaic of San Clemente

The glorious Cross of the apse mosaic of San Clemente in Rome, made in the 12th Century, opens Section Two ‘The Profession of Christian Faith – The Creed’ whose chapters are:

These chapters of the Compendium explore the Creed, a summary statement of what we believe. Creeds had their origins in the early Church in the questions put to those about to be baptised. They were refined over the years as the Church searched for words adequate to express the mysteries of faith. These apparently simple statements encapsulate three centuries of theological effort and inspiration.

About the Artwork

The astonishing mosaic in the Basilica of St. Clement, the focus of which is the Cross depicted in the Compendium, has much to say in pictorial form about what we believe. The Cross, representing the Paschal Mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, is at the heart of Christian faith. Here it reunites heaven and earth and is depicted as the Tree of Life. From it springs abundant growth represented by the acanthus vine whose shoots coil about the whole apse. These tendrils encompass all sorts of signs and symbols of the church which draws its life from the Cross upon which Jesus died. Beside the Cross, on which are depicted white doves suggesting peace, are Mary, Mother of Jesus and St John. John’s gospel records Jesus establishing a new reciprocal relationship between them and those they will represent throughout the ages. Mary is appointed the mother and model of the Church: ‘Woman, behold your Son’. John, the prototype of all the faithful, is directed towards her: ‘Behold your Mother’.

From the foot of the cross gush four springs of water (reminiscent of the four rivers in the Garden of Eden) from which stags, representing all those who long for living waters, drink.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Reflection/Discussion

  • Why is the mystery of the Cross at the centre of Christian faith?
  • In what ways do people of the 21st Century encounter the mystery of the cross either personally or in other ways?  What does this mosaic imply about the Christian attitude to these situations?
  • How does the mosaic suggest that the cross is the source of life? What evidence do you see in today’s world that this is so?
  • How is God the Father depicted in this mosaic? What sense of the Holy Spirit is conveyed?
  • Can class artists devise a 21st Century Tree of Life? How would they imagine it? What symbols might they use to convey the life of the Church now?
  • Traditionally, Mary the Mother of Jesus and St John are depicted beside the cross as they are in this artwork. What is their significance?
  • Sift the Q&As and quotations (they are highlighted in blue boxes) in this section of the Compendium and find one that would be, for you, the best caption for this picture.

The Celebration Of The Christian Mystery – What we celebrate

PART TWO: THE CELEBRATION OF THE CHRISTIAN MYSTERY

The First Image:  The painting of Christ giving Communion to the Apostles

A painting of Jesus giving Communion to the Apostles painted in 1472 by Joos Van Wassenhove introduces Part Two, The Celebration of The Christian Mystery which explains the liturgy or public worship of the Church and the Seven Sacraments. You can look more closely at the details of this painting by visiting the Web Gallery of Art which also provides a short commentary.

Introducing the painting

This was painted as an altarpiece for the Corpus Domini Church in Urbino. Rather than the more usual image of the Apostles seated around Jesus at the last supper, the artist has chosen to represent the giving of communion in a way that reflects the contemporary (1472) setting of the Eucharist. The disciples kneel before Jesus just as those who were present for Mass would kneel to receive communion from the priest. Clearly this painting of the last supper is not meant as an historical depiction of the Last Supper because, as well as the apostles, citizens of the Urbino of 1472 are present, including a mother and child, and also a very finely dressed, turbaned visitor. Above the table, angels in attitudes of adoration offer a reminder that this moment is of universal significance, transcending earthly concepts of time and space and is a sublime celebration of the unity of the body of Christ. In this painting, van Wassenhove is linking the events of the Last Supper to every Eucharist celebrated by the Church throughout the ages. A further brief commentaryon this painting might help you appreciate it more.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Reflection/Discussion

  • Why do you think this particular painting of the Eucharist was chosen by Pope Benedict rather than the more common depictions of Jesus’ Last Supper with the apostles (e.g. Leonardo’s famous painting) to introduce the section which explores the Celebration of the Christian Mystery?
  • Would Jesus have used a chalice, paten and hosts such as we see in this painting at the last supper? Why might the artist used them rather than the cup and loaf mentioned in the gospels and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians? And can you think of an explanation for the presence of 15th Century citizens of Urbino at the Last Supper?
  • Once you have grasped what Joos Van Wassenhove was trying to do in his picture, discuss the elements which might make up a picture which links the Last Supper to 21st Century celebrations of the Eucharist. Try to include contemporary equivalents of all the elements of Van Wassenhove’s picture. Can artists in the class prepare sketches of such a contemporary picture?
  • If you were able to enter this painting, what would you see, touch, hear, feel, smell or say?
  • Can class members form a freeze frame image of this artwork. As you work out the arrangement of the scene, reflect carefully about what each person in the painting is doing, feeling or thinking.
  • Search this section of the Compendium to find a quotation which best expresses the essence of this depiction of the mystery of the Eucharist?

The Second Image:  The image of the Crucifixion in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel

A modern mosaic depicting the crucified Christ and Mary his mother and the Roman centurion opens Part Two, Section One entitled Sacramental Economy. This is a theological term referring to God’s plan for how the saving mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection which happened once and for all on Calvary can be experienced and applied throughout history through the Church. Its chapters are:

  • The Paschal Mystery in the Age of the Church
  • The Sacramental Celebration of the Paschal Mystery

About the artwork

This is a detail from a mosaic, described as ‘a vision to behold commissioned by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s which entirely covers the walls of the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in Rome. It expresses the faith and vision of Jesuit artist Marko Ivan Rupnik. In this detail, Mary, the model of the Church, is depicted embracing her Son and cupping her hand beneath the wound in his side to receive his saving blood. This blood is an emblem of the life of Christ which from now on will be poured out through time and space through the Church and her sacraments. Mary, fully enclosed in a blood red garment and the lifeless Christ face the foreign Roman centurion who by virtue of his expression of faith (‘Truly this was a Son of God’ Mk 15:39) is already bathed in the blood flowing from Christ’s side. Though this is a very recent work, it fits perfectly into the tradition of the Church which has always understood Mary as mother of the Church and has consistently depicted her presenting Christ to the world which is also the role of the Church herself. Hence it expresses both the Church’s love for Christ and her task in bearing his life to all.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Reflection/Discussion

  • What moment is being depicted in this mosaic? What does it say about our faith or belief? What does it suggest about how we should live?
  • Some people believe that we can have a relationship with Christ without the Church. What view does this mosaic express? Do you agree?
  • Explore the symbolism of the colour red in this mosaic.
  • What if Christ had not died on the cross? What if the Church had ended with the deaths of the first witnesses? What other questions does this picture prompt in you?
  • Imagine the life of the Centurion in the weeks following the crucifixion of Jesus especially in relationship to Mary. Write a page in a journal reflecting on the death of Jesus as if you were this Roman soldier.
  • How to pray with Art suggests a simple method of praying using pictures.
  • Sift the Q&As and quotations (they are highlighted in blue boxes) in this section of the Catechism and find one that seems to you, the best caption for this picture.

The Third Image:  The Triptych of the Seven Sacraments

A triptych of the Seven Sacraments appropriately introduces Section Two of Part Two, The Celebration of the Christian Mystery: The Seven Sacraments of the Church. This section summarises the meaning and purpose of:

  • The Sacraments of Christian Initiation
  • The Sacraments of Healing
  • The Sacraments at the Service of Communion
  • Other Liturgical Celebrations

This triptych, originally painted as an altarpiece, by Flemish artist Rogier Van der Weyden around the year 1448, is now in Antwerp Fine Arts Museum. The Web Gallery of Art contains detailed images of the work and a commentary on it. Look it up in the artist index of the web Gallery under W.

About the painting

The altarpiece connects the redemptive death of Christ on the cross, and the life which flows from it, with the seven sacraments of the Church. Each of the sacraments draws upon the mystery of Christ’s death and relates it to those who receive any one of them in faith. The setting is within a lofty church whose nave is divided into three. At the centre Christ on the cross is depicted, with St John and the holy women mourning and praying around him. Also in the centre of the picture, behind the cross is the image of a priest celebrating the Eucharist, the sacrament which most explicitly celebrates and makes present throughout the ages, the death and resurrection of Christ. In chapels to the left and right of the central nave we see the other sacraments being administered and received:

On the left:

  • Baptism, which as Paul says is a baptism into the death of Christ;
  • Confirmation, the anointing with oil which deepens the candidates identification with Christ and hence with the self-emptying mystery of his cross,
  • Penance, the sacrament which celebrates the reconciliation of God with each and every one of us through the act of Christ on the cross,

On the right:

  • Holy Orders, in which candidates are chosen to continue on the earth the priestly office of Christ on the cross.
  • Marriage, in which men and women offer themselves to each other without reserve in imitation of the self-giving love of Christ for the Church.
  • Anointing of the Sick in which the sick person is strengthened to bear his or her personal cross and invited join his or her suffering to the saving act of the crucified Christ.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Discussion /Reflection

  • Examine each of the sacraments depicted in this triptych carefully using the magnifying function on the Web Gallery of Art site. Note who is present at each sacramental celebration and what they are doing.
  • Make a list of similarities and differences between the way the sacraments were celebrated then and the way they are celebrated now.
  • How important are the sacraments in the life of the Church?
  • Imagine you are anyone of the characters in this triptych… Write your reflections on what is happening around you. Don’t forget to include the details of what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, touching or saying and the effect these are having on you.

Life In Christ – How we ought to live

PART THREE: CHRIST OUR LIFE

The First Image:  The Last Supper from the Armenian Tetraevangelium

The third part of the Compendium, Christ our Life, is introduced by a painting of a Last Supper by Jacob Copista from an Armenian Tetraevangelium (Four Gospels). This part of the Compendium deals with the way Christians understand and live the life of Christ. It teaches about the nature of the human person, human society, morality, sin and grace, conscience, law and the Church.

Christ our Life is divided into two sections. The first section has three chapters

  • The dignity of the Human Person
  • The Human Community
  • God’s Salvation Law and Grace

About the Painting

The Last Supper by Jacob Copista which introduces this section is very different from the depiction of the same event which introduces Section Two. In this stylised picture the apostles are gathered around Jesus at table. John leans closely against Jesus with Jesus’ arm protectively around him; they are literally heart to heart’. The picture demonstrates the love of God, in Christ, for each of us individually but also the importance of the human community The table itself resembles a large chalice. It is as if Jesus and those who join in this sacred meal with him are ‘in it together’. The picture suggests that living our lives in Christ is only possible if we actually share his life by participating in it. It is through the Eucharist that we are brought into communion in his body and blood. It is the Eucharist which enables us to truly be what we are, the Body of Christ in the world, living life as Christ lived it.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Reflection/Discussion

  • Whom or what has had the greatest impact on the way you live your life?
  • Why are personal relationships so significant as formative influences?
  • Would it be possible to be a Christian without commitment to the person of Christ?
  • John, the beloved disciple, often represents each of those faithful to Christ. In this painting how is John represented and what chiefly characterises the relationship between him and Jesus?
  • How is the emotion of this moment conveyed? What stands out in this painting for you?
  • What is the significance of the seven pillared building behind the table? Why choose this picture to introduce the part of the Catechism dealing with life in Christ?
  • Sift the Q&As and quotations (they are highlighted in blue boxes) in this section and find one that seems to you, the best caption for this picture.

The Second Image:  St John contemplating the Immaculate Conception

A depiction of Saint John contemplating the Immaculate Conception by El Greco painted in introduces Part Three Life in Christ Section One which is divided into three chapters whose titles indicate their content:

  • The Dignity of the Human Person
  • The Human Community
  • God’s Salvation: Law and Grace

About the Painting

El Greco painted The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception and St John in 1585 basing it loosely on John’s vision described in the Apocalypse. The Web Gallery of Art provides another image and a brief comment as well as a biography of the artist.

St John is portrayed gazing at a vision of Mary suspended between heaven and earth. In fact her body links the two. The term Immaculate Conception refers to the faith of the Church that destined as Mary was to be the mother of God, she was conceived without original sin and remained always sinless. Untouched by sin, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and surrounded by angels, she is the image of what God originally planned that all human beings would be: beautiful, loving, filled with grace and strength and utterly open to God. St John represents all believers (we stand behind him contemplating her) who look to Mary as a model of human goodness and dignity, perfectly in tune with God’s law, receptive to grace, and as such, the ideal model and guide to life in Christ.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Reflection/Discussion

  • This painting was completed during a time of high Marian devotion in the Church. Research some other images, prayers and litanies that are related to Mary.
  • Read a short history of how Mary has been understood in the life of the Church.
  • In the Compendium Mary is presented as a model, for our admiration and imitation, of life in Christ. Who else do you admire as a model of life in Christ. What parallels are there between the qualities of this person and the person of Mary?
  • In El Greco’s painting, Mary’s feet rest on a churchlike building and Vatican II presented her as the model of the Church. How is the Church like and/or unlike Mary?
  • Read and reflect on Mary’s prayer the Magnificat. What does it reveal about her spirituality and sense of justice?
  • Write a haiku (a short poem of 17 syllables) that expresses something of your understanding of Mary as portrayed in this painting.

The Third Image:  The Sermon on the Mount

Fra Angelico’s Sermon on the Mount, painted around 1440, precedes Christ our Life, Section Two, which looks at the Ten Commandments. The chapters in this section are headed according the wording of the Great Commandment:

  • ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind’ and
  • ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Many commentators on the Gospel of Matthew see parallels in his account of the Sermon on the Mount with the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses and his law fulfils and completes the Law of Moses given on Mt Sinai.

About the Painting

‘Fra Angelico was a friar of the Dominican order and the frescoes he painted in his Florentine monastery of San Marco round about 1440 are among his most beautiful works. He painted a sacred scene in each monk’s cell and at the end of every corridor so that the monks would constantly be reminded of the Lord to whom they had consecrated their lives.

As one walks from one to the other in the stillness of the old building one feels something of the spirit in which these works were conceived …. There is hardly any movement in Fra Angelico’s painting and hardly any suggestion of real solid bodies. But I think it is all the more moving because of its humility, which is that of a great artist who deliberately renounced any display.’ (E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art).

The ‘Sermon on the Mount depicts the moment when Christ instructs his disciples in his Law which is not a renunciation or contradiction of the Law of Moses but its fulfilment. Seated simply on a small, bare mount Jesus speaks to his disciples from the heart and with authority. The Twelve pay careful attention. For them, and for us, following the commandments of Christ is the way to life.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Reflection/Discussion

  • In the scriptures mountains are often places of encounter with God. Describe a mountain experience of your own.
  • In Exodus Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. What similarities and contrasts with that giving of the Law are noticeable in this picture?
  • Do you feel included or excluded from the group Jesus is speaking to? Explain why.
  • What is the role of the Commandments in Christian life? Are they necessary? Are they sufficient for Christians? How do they relate to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount ?
  • Search this section of the Compendium to find a quotation which best expresses for you the meaning of this fresco.

Christian Prayer – How we pray

PART FOUR: CHRISTIAN PRAYER

The First Image:  The Coptic Icon of Pentecost

An icon of Pentecost from the Coptic icon writing tradition opens the fourth and final part of the Compendium, Christian Prayer whose Chapters are:

  • The Revelation of Prayer,
  • The Tradition of Prayer and
  • The Life of Prayer.

About this icon

This is a modern icon written by Isaac Fanous (1919-2007) an Egyptian iconographer who has been at the forefront of the revival of Coptic religious art. One of many icons by Fanous in Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, USA, it depicts the Church at prayer in the very instant of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is distinctive because the group of disciples includes the faithful women witnesses to the resurrection as well as Mary the Mother of God and the Twelve Apostles. The group are enclosed in the love of the Triune God represented by the triangle of fire and light breathed forth by the dove representing the Holy Spirit and the shining wings recall words from of the ancient hymn of Pentecost:

‘And through all perils lead us safe
Beneath thy sacred wing’. (Rabanus Maurus 776-856)

Mary and the holy women and the apostles have their hands raised or folded in attitudes of prayer and each are haloed and crowned with tongues of fire. The whole icon suggests the unity and illumination and sharing in the life of the Holy Spirit that comes from heartfelt prayer.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say? What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Reflection/Discussion

  • In many paintings of Pentecost artists attempt to differentiate between the disciples and indicate what is distinctive and different about them. Why do you think Isaac Fanous has made the arrangement of his icon so stylised and the expressions of Mary and the disciples so similar?
  • What is the icon telling us about Christian Prayer and about relationship to God and to others in prayer?
  • What does the geometry of this icon, its shape and form, ssuggest?
  • Imagine the triangle of this icon as the apex of a much larger triangle? What would you depict in the rest of it?
  • Reflect on the presence of the three women in this picture.
  • Choose some music to play while contemplating this icon.
  • Search this section of the Compendium to find a quotation which best expresses for you the meaning of this picture.

The Second Image:  An icon of the Principal Liturgical Feasts

A traditional Byzantine icon of the main feasts of the liturgical year introduces Prayer in Christian Life. The rhythm of feasts and seasons of the liturgical year invites Christians to share in the mysteries of the life of Christ and provides a way in which year after year we can enter more deeply into the meaning of each of the significant events of Christ’s life death and resurrection. This union with Christ in the liturgy of the Church underpins the life of prayer of all Catholics. It is ‘the source and summit” of Christian life.

About the icon

The central focus of this rather busy icon is a depiction of the resurrection and ascension of Christ. In the lower right corner of the central image, Jesus is seen raising Lazarus to life prefiguring his own resurrection. In the centre, the Risen Lord, surrounded by an aureole of light raises Adam and Eve and a multitude of others from their graves while directly above this Jesus is seen again, ascending to glory. Surrounding this main image and in relation to it are twelve smaller images depicting key moments in salvation history which are celebrated every year in the Church: Across the top are depicted

Left to right in the next row are

Left to right in the third row from the top are

Left to right across the bottom are

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say?
  • What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Reflection/Discussion

  • What are the advantages of the yearly cycle of feasts and seasons? How do they help us pray?
  • How do each of the main feasts depicted in this icon (and the weekly celebration of Sunday Eucharist) relate to the central feast of the resurrection depicted in the centre of the icon
  • Choose one of the feasts that is less familiar to you and research the history of its celebration and some of the customs associated with it.
  • Search this section of the Compendium to find a quotation which best expresses for you the meaning of this icon.

The Third Image:  Christ at Prayer in Gethsemane

This painting depicts Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane by El Greco. The whole of this section is devoted to an exploration of the meaning of prayer through an examination of the phrases of the Our Father. Read a further comment on this painting on the Web Gallery of Art site.

About the painting

This painting shares some of the characteristics of an icon. Jesus’ hands and face are somewhat elongated, his garment stylised, three aspects of his experience in Gethsemane are portrayed simultaneously and the sizes of the figures depicted vary and don’t obey the rules of perspective and scale. In contrast to the calm of an icon though, the landscape tips and slopes, the sky seems disturbed, the colours throb and the rocks press around the figure of Christ. There is a nightmarish quality to the picture which suggests Jesus’ agony of mind. In the centre of the painting Jesus kneels in prayer, his face lifted towards the angel who comes to him bearing a cup (reminiscent of the chalice used at Mass). In the lower left we see the disciples sleeping while to the right of the painting the soldiers approach to arrest Jesus.

This painting addresses the experience of those who pray but whose prayer goes apparently unanswered. God does not do for Jesus what he explicitly prays for, the cup of suffering does not pass him by. But on another level, Jesus’ commitment to the will of God ‘Thy will be done’ also expressed in his prayer brings peace and trust. These are also reflected on his face in the midst of his agony of fear and are symbolised by the presence of the angel who while signifying God’s nearness, nevertheless carries the bitter cup of which Jesus will drink.

Rowan Williams, the present Archbishop of Canterbury has commented: ‘If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write our Lord’s Prayer.’ This prayer, introduced by El Greco’s painting, sums up our faith and prayer as no other can. You might be interested to read Archbishop Williams’ online commentary on it.

Describe, interpret and respond

  •  Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say?
  • What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Reflection/Discussion

  • As a class project, print a copy of this painting for each student and assign to each a phrase of the Lord’s Prayer as a title. Invite each to consider how looking at the picture through each phrase changes and deepens the understanding of both the picture and the phrases of the ‘Our Father.
  • What are we doing when we pray? What are some of your own experiences of prayer?
  • What is the effect of the landscape in El Greco’s picture and the meaning of the chalice carried by the angel? How does this relate to our celebrations of the Eucharist?
  • With which group of those depicted in this painting do you find yourself identifying?
  • Find some music which would best express the emotion of this painting?Search Christian Prayer Section Two to find a quotation which best expresses for you the meaning and impact of this picture.

The Concluding Image:  Angelic Singers

The final image of the Compendium which closes the Question and Answer part of the book is of a choir of angels, a panel of the great Altarpiece at Ghent painted by Jan Van Eyck in 1432. Appropriately, it introduces the Appendix to the Compendium, a collection of prayers in English and Latin.

About the Painting

Though this panel is invariably referred to as depicting angelic singers, they are remarkably human. Wings and haloes which conventionally mark out angels are missing (compare them with the angels surrounding the altar in the main panel). They are beautiful and wearing rich, substantial ecclesiastical apparel as they sing around the altar of God. Their features are human and individualised. Several of them are frowning slightly as they concentrate on getting their harmonies correct. They are singing from a book mounted on an intricately carved bookstand. Whether angelic or human they are participating in the great cosmic liturgy celebrating with martyrs and saints, bishops and kings and throngs of the faithful, the triumph of the Lamb who stands upon the altar pouring forth his own life blood for the life of the world.

It is to this liturgy of the world which each of us is invited. We willingly join with others but contribute in our own individual way. There is a voice within each of us which no-one else can raise. There is work for each of us to do which no-one else can do. Is this the message of these uniquely human angels?

Further comment on the Altarpiece itself can be found on the Web Gallery of Art site.

Describe, interpret and respond

  • Do we know who made this work?
  • Can you find out when it was made and why?
  • Who and what is in the picture – look carefully?
  • What do you think the artist was trying to say?
  • What does it mean for you?
  • How has the artist used symbols to convey the message?
  • What feelings do you have when looking at it?
  • Why might people have loved and revered and preserved this work?

For Reflection/Discussion

  • Listen to some music that was composed in this era. Music by Guillaume Dufay which accompanies this picture on the Web Gallery of Art is one example (Scroll to the bottom of the commentary to find the button). Ockeghem, Josquin des Pres and Gabrieli are other famous renaissance composers. How would you describe this music? Can you relate it to your own inner voice or is there another style that expresses your own response to God more effectively?
  • Look through the Appendix of Prayers. How many are you familiar with? Choose one that appeals to you and find out as much as you can about its use in the Church. If you are artistic, incorporate it into a poster of your own design. Learn it by heart.
  • Compose prayers of intercession for the needs of the world. Use a sung response to accompany the prayers. This could be the composition of musically gifted class members or you could use a Taize refrain as a response.
  • One of the most popular Latin hymns in the Appendix is the ‘Salve Regina’ which is often sung at the end of Night Prayer. Click this link to listen to it being chanted.
  • ‘There is a voice within each of us which no-one else can raise. There is work for each of us to do which no-one else can do.’ For you, What is this voice? What is this work?

Exploring further

The art of the Compendium is one way into its contents. Another would be an exploration of the quotations from the saints that are spread throughout it. These are easy to see because they are contained in blue text boxes and generally speaking they are easy to remember because they are either short and pithy or an invitation to deeper thought.

Another would be to invite students to choose questions that they see as especially relevant to them in the chapters you are studying for further discussion and exploration. The full Catechism of the Catholic Church could help you here.