The cover of the month

Entering into Vision by Pierre-Marie Dumont

This “portrait” of Mary Magdalene is a detail from Santi di Tito’s (1536–1603) masterpiece The Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas, painted in 1593 for the church of the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence. One can still contemplate it there today before going on to admire Fra Angelico’s famed frescoes on the walls of the convent itself. The “vision” painted by Santi di Tito does not purport to illustrate either of the two famous visions granted to Saint Thomas Aquinas, first in Paris and then in Naples, in 1273. Rather than Saint Thomas experiencing a vision, the painting offers to our view—in his stead, so to speak—a way of seeing enjoyed by him1, first intellectual, then sensitive, that of the Eucharistic mystery as he describes it in both his Summa Theologiae and his admirable hymns and antiphons.

Contemplation of the Eucharistic mystery

The viewer of this work is made the privileged witness of a scene painted in real space as a metaphor for the reality of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Saint Thomas appears on the painting as a spectator exterior to it, absorbed in contemplation of the Eucharistic mystery. He contemplates a scene of the crucifixion painted in trompe-l’oeil, with figures emerging from some sort of architectural niche leading deep into the Jerusalem landscape.

As spectators, we are clearly invited to put ourselves in the saint’s place and share his vision—that is, to witness to the transformation of a pictorial representation commemorating an event into its palpable actualization. Thus, this tableau, which the artist transforms from a flat image into a living scene, is clearly intended as a figure of the real presence of the Body of Christ under the appearance of the Eucharistic bread. This interpretation is confirmed by the open book Saint Thomas holds out, seemingly making him both part of the scene and recipient of its vision. In it we read the antiphon to Psalm 110, read at vespers on the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, an antiphon written by Saint Thomas himself: “A priest forever according to the order of King Melchizedek, Christ offered the bread and the wine.”

This work is in fact a celebration of the historical moment when, three centuries earlier, Saint Thomas “saw”—intellectually, then visibly—the answer to this question: “In the sacrament of the Eucharist, is the Body of Christ truly present, or is it rather by way of a figure or as a symbol?” His response explained the doctrine of transubstantiation and of the real presence, which was reaffirmed by the Church at the Council of Trent (1563), just thirty years before the execution of this painting.

The inner vision

Moreover, as Ralph Dekoninck observed, the figures in the painting seem, through the direction and nature of their gazes, to embody different ways of perceiving the mystery of faith. Note the especial look exchanged by Saint Thomas and the Virgin Mary, so true is it that the Body of Christ first came into the world through the Mother of God. As for our Mary Magdalene here, the artificial lighting of her face clearly reflects the fact that she is here presented within the context of a miraculous apparition. She is luminous, immersed in deep inner contemplation. Is that not the preferred manner of vision after receiving within oneself the Body of Christ? And it is precisely she who is the only figure in the painting to touch the physical Body of Christ. She embraces his feet as, in a prefiguration, she had already once done in the home of Simon the Pharisee, during supper

Follow this link to descover the masterpiece The Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Mary Magdalene (detail from The Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1593), Santi di Tito (1536–1603), San Marco Museum, Florence, Italy. © Domingie & Rabatti / La Collection.