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The Story Of Repentance Behind A Glorious Spanish Altarpiece

February 26, 2021 Featured Today No Comments


“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). The Dutch city of Gorkum (Gorinchem) was to witness a unique fulfillment of these words on June 26, 1572. Zwinglian fanatics called zeegeuzen — “water pirates” — had stormed the city, targeting in particular Catholic places of worship and Catholic clergy. Fifteen priests and religious were captured, men of faith who thirteen days later would die for refusing to deny the doctrine of Transubstantiation — they together with four others would later come to be known as the Martyrs of Gorkum.
But the water pirates were not only intent upon persecuting these disciples of Christ. They sought to get at the Master Himself. Breaking open the Tabernacle in the city’s parish church, the raiders began a hate-driven ritual of profaning the Hosts by strewing them across the floor and stomping upon them with their hobnail boots. The rite was intended to “prove” that the Holy Eucharist is not the Body of Christ, and that they were unafraid to trample upon the sacrament. But things took a totally unexpected turn: One of the trampled Hosts, punctured in three places, began to bleed. The water pirates’ frenzied dance of sacrilege ceased, their bravado turned to fear, and all but one of them fled.
The one man who remained knew he could not simply run away from what he had done. In an instant he realized that what he had regarded and had treated as a lifeless, worthless “thing” was very much alive. It was as if he had heard the words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).
He went to find the pastor of the church, Johannes van der Delft. The priest took the Host into safekeeping, and he and the repentant “water pirate” escaped to Mechlin. It was there that the erstwhile Zwinglian not only became a Catholic but also entered the city’s Franciscan friary, where as a religious he was able to adore the very Host he had formerly desecrated, reserved in the friary.
But the religious violence that had engulfed Gorkum soon threatened Mechlin when the Protestant Duke of Orange took the city on August 31, 1572. The miraculous Host, as well as various relics enshrined in Mechlin, were evacuated to Antwerp. Word of the Host of Gorkum reached the ears of a pious German layman, Ferdinand Weidner, a captain serving under the Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria Rudolf II. The Host was entrusted to his protection, and in 1580 it was brought to Vienna. There it passed into the custody of a Spanish noble family, who in turn gave it to the Spanish monarch King Philip II.
In 1597, the miraculous Host of Gorkum, the “Sagrada Forma” (“Sacred Host”) as it would come to be known in Spain, was solemnly enshrined in a tabernacle at the Altar of the Annunciation in the spacious chapel of the Royal Monastery of the Escorial in Madrid. It was going to take a strange turn of political turmoil eighty years later to give this new Treasure of the Escorial a glorious new setting within the same church.
On January 17, 1677, the Augustinian prior of the Escorial, Fray Marcos de Herrera, found at his door an intimidating array of five hundred soldiers led by six angry Spanish nobles ready to take the law into their own hands. At the request of the Spanish monarch Charles II, Fray Herrera had taken into protective custody within the monastery the king’s “Gentleman of the Chamber” Fernando Valenzuela. The six nobles considered Valenzuela their political enemy and were determined to seize him, come what may.
Fray Herrera had not the means to stop their forced entry. Acting with sacrilegious disregard for the sacred space they were violating, the nobles and their troops ransacked the monastery in pursuit of Valenzuela. With all other means exhausted, the prior turned to the one spiritual weapon at his disposal. After consuming all the Hosts in the chapel tabernacle to prevent their profanation by the invaders, Fray Herrera, accompanied by twelve of his monks, began the Church’s solemn rite of excommunication against the nobles with all the dramatic imagery both in words and actions that the ceremony then possessed in the Roman Pontifical:
“. . . He [the bishop, in this case the prior] pronounces and brings forth the anathema, in this manner . . . ‘Therefore, because he despises our admonitions and numerous exhortations . . . , we separate him, with all his accomplices and patrons, [by] the judgment of God the Father almighty, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and of blessed Peter the Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, as well as both with the authority of our mediocrity, and the power divinely granted to us of binding, and loosing, in heaven, and on earth, from the reception of the precious Body and Blood of the Lord, and from the society of all Christians; and we exclude him from the thresholds of Holy Mother Church in heaven, and on earth, and we determine him to be excommunicated and anathematized, and judge him to be damned with the devil, and his angels, and all the reprobates in eternal fire, unless he should repent from the snares of the devil, and revert to conversion and penitence, and make satisfaction to the Church of God, which he has harmed…’
“And all should respond: ‘So be it. So be it. So be it.’
“This having been done, both the bishop [in this case, the prior] and the [twelve] priests ought to throw to the ground the lit candles that they have been holding in their hands” (Pontificale Romanum, 1595-1596, pp. 642, 643-644).
To drive home his point, the prior saw to it that every candle in the Escorial was turned upside down.
King Charles subsequently petitioned for and obtained from Pope Innocent XI a pardon for the excommunicated nobles, the Pontiff granting the pardon on the condition that the nobles do penance for their crime by participating in the construction of a new altar or chapel for the interior of the Escorial church. Charles took charge of this project, settling upon a plan to transform the altar within the Escorial’s vast sacristy into a shrine for the Sagrada Forma of Gorkum. To this end he contributed to the fabrication of a magnificent new tabernacle for the Host by donating a splendid clock stand of gold-plated silver adorned with precious jewels. The king also transferred from the altar of the Escorial’s royal mausoleum, the Pantheon of the Kings, a large gilt bronze crucifix.
The solemn transfer of the Sagrada Forma to its new home within the sacristy took place on October 19, 1684. The Escorial’s prior at this time, Fray Francisco de los Santos, carried the Host in procession, and King Charles II led the laity in adoring the Blessed Sacrament, in the company of the nobles who were doing penance for their act of sacrilege from seven years earlier.
For all the beauty of the ceremony and of the new tabernacle for the miraculous Host, the King was disquieted afterward in that he felt the altar itself was wanting in splendor. So he undertook an ambitious project to build an entirely new altar for the Sagrada Forma that would employ not only fine architecture and sculpture but also consummate painting.
Charles set out to create a sort of royal chamber for the miraculous Host, veiled by a painted screen that could be mechanically lowered to reveal the Host and its miniature sanctuary on special occasions. A magnificent pillared marble retable was constructed featuring four carved scenes from the history of the Sagrada Forma, including its desecration in Gorkum and the subsequent entry of its repentant desecrator into the Franciscan Order.

Epic Proportions

But by far the greatest artistic achievement in the king’s makeover of the sacristy altar-shrine would prove to be the paintings he commissioned for the retractable screen. The Italian artist chosen to complete this daunting task was Claudio Coello (1642-1693), an assignment that would take him five years to finish.
It is the painting facing outward from the screen, facing the rest of the sacristy, that is most remarkable, a work of oil on canvas, epic in its proportions, measuring over sixteen feet high and almost ten feet wide. Capturing in virtually photographic realism, color, and detail the climax of the 1584 enthronement of the Sagrada Forma in its new home within the Escorial sacristy, Coello depicts the moment when the prior Fray de los Santos raises the monstrance to bless the king and all in attendance.
The prior is flanked by two kneeling priests, with the face of one enraptured as he gazes up toward the Host. The face of the prior is solemn, intense, as he holds the monstrance. The king kneels upon a prie-dieu directly before him, with a lighted candle in his hand. Surrounding him are the perpetrators of the 1677 sacrilege, their faces painstakingly executed by Coello. In the background can be seen the Augustinian friars of the Escorial amid an array of candles.
For the reverse side of the screen Coello created a matching scene, depicting a procession just beginning to turn into the nave of a church, seen from the perspective of looking down the nave from the altar. It is as if one were seeing the approaching procession from the perspective of the tabernacle, as though seen through the eye of Christ in the tabernacle.
After having been temporarily removed from the sacristy shrine for Charles’ reconstruction project, the Sagrada Forma of Gorkum was solemnly returned to the sacristy and its refurbished shrine on October 29, 1690, the festivities beginning with Vespers on the preceding evening, the Escorial illuminated by an astounding 36,000 lights situated on window sills, at doorways, on cornices and the capitals of columns, as well as along galleries.
Claudio Coello’s masterpiece on the outside of the sacristy shrine has come to be known by the name of the miraculous Host it depicts, “La Sagrada Forma.” Significantly, even when viewed more closely, Coello’s portrayal of the Holy Host does not appear to show the blood-marked punctures from the day of the Sacrament’s desecration. The Host in the monstrance held by the prior in Coello’s painting looks just like any other consecrated Host. And that goes to the very heart of the message in Coello’s work.
It is not so much about one particular Host but rather about what each and every consecrated Host truly is — the real Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the species of bread. It is a celebration of the victory of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, who conquers unbelievers by making them His loving disciples.

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