A Whole Theatrical Presentation

by Steven Schloeder, appearing in Volume 23

Edmund Bishop made an interesting comment that during the Middle Ages, “the Blessed Sacrament reserved was commonly treated with a kind of indifference which at present would be considered to be of the nature of ‘irreverence,’ I will not say indignity.”1 This is perhaps understandable: the Eucharist, and what we consider to be the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Eucharistic species, could be somewhat taken for granted considering the established place of Eucharistic theology from the early patristic though the early medieval periods. For about a thousand years after the post-apostolic teachings of Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus,2 few seriously questioned that the Eucharist was the Body and Blood of Christ, as the Lord himself said. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem gives a typical, simple, and eloquent affirmation of this:

Do not, then, regard the eucharistic elements as ordinary bread and wine: they are in fact the body and blood of the Lord, as he himself has declared. Whatever your senses may tell you, be strong in faith. You have been taught and you are firmly convinced that what looks and tastes like bread and wine is not bread and wine but the body and the blood of Christ.3

There was little formal or systematic theology behind such utterances, other than the real theology of taking the words of Christ at their face value. Only after that could they be considered as typology, anagogy, tropology, or allegory. In time, the conventional understanding was challenged, first by a ninth century monk named Rathramnus and later (more famously) in the eleventh century by Berengarius of Tours. In response, the Scholastics developed the Eucharistic theory of transubstantiation, with which they robustly defended the words of the Lord. That doctrine was formally articulated for the Latin Church by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 AD), and subsequently reaffirmed against the Protestants at the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century.

This span of 300 years neatly situates Dr. Timmermann’s magisterial study of the sacrament tower, a large and lofty architectural feature in late medieval churches that housed the Reserved Species, in an age when Mr. Bishop’s concerns about “indifference” could be laid to rest. Timmermann deftly interweaves themes of theology, piety, devotional practice, iconology, architectural form (in particular ‘microarchitecture’), geometry, and politics. He gives us a comprehensive accounting and analysis of what has been a largely overlooked architectural feature that in many ways emblemizes and contextualizes the development of Eucharist theology in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period.

Timmermann begins with a solid presentation of the various cultural currents in chapter one: what he calls “the eucharistic-theological, liturgical-devotional, socio-religious, salvific-economic and architectural discourses” [p. 1]. Be warned that such dense language is typical of Timmermann’s academic writing style, common in dissertation material, which could be rendered more casual and conversational for the lay reader. That said, his grasp and mastery of his subject is evident, and he brings a depth of study to explain the major theological arguments of the scholastics; the way the cultus of Corpus Christi was instrumental in engaging lay participation from a formerly clerical activity; and how anti-Semitism, the Hussite Utraquist controversy (that the Eucharist must be administered under both species), and the later Protestant challenges shaped the display of the Sacrament into grand statements of orthodoxy and ecclesiastical unity. Timmermann shows us how the tower form also served a mnemonic function (actually two): first, for the memory of the donors by whose patronage they were built; and second, as an architectural miniaturization that could incorporate a whole theatrical presentation of the heavenly Jerusalem or of salvation history or any number of iconographic themes that engaged the memory and imagination of the spectator. These five discourses form the recurring filters through which Timmermann examines and analyzes a significant inventory of sacrament towers built over the next several centuries throughout Europe.

In chapter two, Timmermann gives a concise outline of the history of Eucharistic reservation, and shows how the various forms from pyx, dove, ciborium, and wall niches pre-date and lead up to the sacrament tower. The remaining chapters are well detailed, and profusely illustrated investigations into the form, iconography, geometry, and cultural aspects of the sacrament towers. Of particular interest is his accounting of the demise of the sacrament tower as the Church began to prefer the tabernacle form from the time of Trent, mandated in the 1614 Rituale Romanum, and the last gasps of architectural theatrics as the medieval form was Classicized, Baroquified, and Rococoized into fantastical confections of architectural exuberance.

Timmermann’s book is a serious contribution to the study of the dynamics between theology, liturgics, popular piety, and architecture. Perhaps its greatest strength, apart from simply presenting us with a detailed study of this largely unexplored but significant architectural typology, is the wealth of photos and drawings (381 illustrations), many of them from his own camera. This should be a valuable resource for students and practitioners of ecclesiastical architecture, as we reexamine the precedents of our architectural traditions to find new ways of expressing the sacramental reality that informed the great medieval and Renaissance sacrament towers.