Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages

Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages, by Ann W. Astell. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006. 296 pp. $29.95.

“Let us imagine that in the whole world there was but one bread, and it could satisfy the hunger of all” (168). Professor Ann W. Astell of Notre Dame University spent a year in research of medieval arts and literature relating to the Eucharist; the result of this near-monastic pursuit is the 2006 book, Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. Her purpose in writing the book is to examine the fall of man, predicated by the eating of forbidden fruit, and how the beauty of the Eucharist neutralizes this depraved state. The magnificence of this consumption is viewed through four medieval perspectives: St. Bernard of Clairvaux; St. Bonaventure; St. Ignatius of Loyola with Michelangelo; and the three Catherines—Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, and “Catherine” Rose of Lima.

As a Baptist I do not agree with the Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist stated in this book, nor do I accept its implied salvific nature. However, one would fully expect this bias to occur in a manuscript written with the above predisposition as this review’s summary will elaborate.

The opening premise is underscored by the proposition that the “Tree of Life” was not “an antidote for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil [but to] foreshadow the Eucharistic sacrament” (33). However, the bulk of the book quickly moves from that to describing the following four Eucharistic interactions aesthetically.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux was cerebral in his monasticism described in the chapter, “Hidden Manna.” Profoundly intrigued by mnemonic techniques, he instructed the monks to construct ornate “memory palaces” in their minds where they could visit to remember important concepts of discipleship and Scripture (65). The beauty here is within, yet the visible worldly realm was to remain austere. The author’s implication is that the host has intrinsic internal value—it changes the communicant from the inside out.

Mysticism, gematria, and the stigmata of St. Francis govern the ensuing chapter “Adorned with Wounds.” Unlike the previous chapter, the Eucharist manifests itself externally through sacrificial works and the stigmata, which was the purported blemishes St. Francis mysteriously received on his hands and feet that resembled those of Christ. The strong undercurrent of mysticism and the beauty of external Eucharistic manifestation of the Middle Ages continues in the chapter titled “Imitate Me as I Imitate Christ” describing “the Catherines.” These ascetic ladies’s régimes are interwoven with the observed miracles that would later canonize them.

The following chapter about the kinship and logothetics between the penitent priest, Loyola, and the resolute sculptor, Michelangelo, is a brilliant visual and ontological parallelism that compares the spiritual exercises of the “father of the Jesuits” and four periods of work by the famed sculptor. Anachronistically, the penultimate chapter deals with the philosophy of art in the Eucharist through the eyes of Catholic philosopher Simone Weil and prominent Protestant philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. To Hegel, the beauty comes more from the philosophical regard to the sacraments than it does from a moment of transubstantiation as Weil proffered.

Eating Beauty is targeted to an audience who is sympathetic to a form of Christianity that is built less on the authority of Scripture and more on mystery, penitence, and ritual. This interpretation yields weaknesses in the writing: the wholesale acceptance of medieval miracles, a weak defense of transubstantiation, and an unclear pursuit of the written purpose of the book, especially for a reader lacking in a knowledge of medieval history.

In Eating Beauty miracles are celebrated without any apparent inquiry to their veracity. “Adorned with Wounds” was so laden with miracle-reporting that the message of the Eucharist was all but lost, leaving the reader to search for direction in Astell’s narrative. Gory details of “the Catherines,” in “Imitate Me as I Imitate Christ” were far more about penitent life than about the importance of the Eucharist and the spiritual arts.

The doctrine of transubstantiation—the claim that the bread, upon consecration, of the priest, changes into the “substance of the body of Christ,” and the wine the “substance of His blood,”[1] is feebly defended in a few lines on page fifty-two as “in answer to doubts about transubstantiation—often involved bleeding Hosts, disturbingly bloody signs of the mystery of the Mass.” Obscure miracles are seemingly the only defense Eating Beauty has for this sacramental transformation. Though not an adherent to this doctrine, I will admit that there are stronger and richer biblical defenses for this dogma that could have easily been employed than were stated in this book.

The final criticism of this work is the lack of cohesiveness to the book’s stated purpose. It is up to the reader to dig through the chapters to find relative meaning of the Eucharist as the emblematic antidote for Adam and Eve’s consumption of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. While the book’s stated purpose of man’s symbolic and literal redemption of eating sin by eating beauty is a noble claim, it is not clearly supported in the writing.

What is evident in the script, however, is the author’s research and thorough understanding of this time period—it is impressive, exhaustive, and unquestionable. The depth of information rendered portions of this reading a true delight; a worthwhile charge to a follower of Christ by any label. If the evangelical world had a tenth of the zeal for the via pulchritudinis (“way of beauty”) (228) of Communion that Astell has, our time at “the Table” would have a much richer significance.

Doctrinal weaknesses notwithstanding, the purpose of this book is somewhat fulfilled by vivid, studied, and well-documented writing, but it is left to the reader to make the necessary symbolic and spiritual connections. Despite this, the excursions off “the beaten path” were educational and enlightening. Eleven full-color plates accompany the tome, adding to the richness of the story.

Eating Beauty was a journey I enjoyed. As a Baptist, the manuscript definitely humbled me in my regard to this most beautiful banquet that all Christians enjoy and many times take for granted, the Lord’s Supper.

John L. Francis
Hannibal-LaGrange University

[1] Council of Trent, 1552.

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