Exterior of The Church of the Blessed Sacrament
Over the main door of the church is a large relief modeled after a Raphael fresco in the Vatican, The Triumph of the Eucharist (The Disputation of the Sacrament). This is a companion piece to Raphael’s The Triumph of Philosophy (The School of Athens) depicting Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers debating in the courtyards in the Acropolis. Raphael was honoring the twin medieval sciences of theology and philosophy in his frescoes, made about 1509. The original that inspired the upper part of our relief, is described by Pierluigi DeVecchi in the Complete Works of Raphael:
At the top of the lunette is God the Father, and below, within the large aureola, is Christ with Mary, St. John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit. The consecrated host over the altar is the link between the Church Triumphant (in heaven) and the Church Militant (on earth) and is the focus of the composition. It is contemplated by, on the semicircle of clouds of the Church Triumphant, Peter, Adam, John the Evangelist, David, Stephen and Jeremiah on the left; and on the right, Judas Macabeus, Lawrence, Moses, Matthew (or James the Greater or the Less), Abraham and Paul. On the concentric earthly semicircle is a crowded Church Militant: to the left, Fra Angelico, the architect Bramant, Gregory the Great, Julius II, Jerome and, to the right, Ambrose, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Innocent III, Bonaventure, Sixtus IV and Savaronla. The two lower strips of figures of unidentified clerics and laity are not in Raphael’s original.
The exterior statues in the upper towers and to the sides of the Rose Window are unidentified, but, to the left of the steps as you enter, are Philip Neri (the founder of the Oratorians, the order of Cardinal Newman), Francis de Sales (the humane post-Reformation bishop of Geneva), John Vianney (the Cure of Ars and patron of parish priests), John the Baptist de la Salle (the founder of the Christian Brothers); and to the right, Alphonsus Ligouri (Redemptorist priest and renowned moral theologian), Francis of Assisi (founder of the Franciscans), Charles Borromeo (post-Reformation cardinal and bishop of Milan) and Vincent de Paul (French “apostle of charity” and founder of the Sisters of Charity). Directly above are Mary, Queen of Heaven and Christ the King.
The Saints in the tympana (the space within the arches) over the left and right entries are the Dominican Thomas Aquinas (the Angelic Doctor) and the Franciscan Bonaventure (the Seraphic Doctor). They have been called the “two olive trees and two chandeliers shining in the house of God.” They represent, respectively, the Aristotelian and Platonic influences in medieval theology. Over Aquinas’ image are the well-known works in Latin from one of his many hymns: Adoro Te Devote Latens Deitas (Devoutly I adore thee, hidden God) and over Bonaventure’s image are the Latin words: Semper Te Sitio, O fons vitae (Continually I thirst for you, O font of life).
Interior of Church of the Blessed Sacrament
Entering the church, the saints in the upper clerestory (second story) windows on your right are Jude and Simon, Philip and Bartholomew, Peter and Paul, Thomas and James the Less, Andrew and James the Greater. Below these, in the centers of the trefoil windows, are various Eucharistic symbols: the bird and the grape theme (the faithful being fed by the Blood of Christ), the Crucifixion, the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Sacrament. In the upper windows on the left, from the front of the church are Clare and Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena and Bonaventure, Luke and John, Barbara and Matthias; and in the trefoil windows below, from the front, are: the pelican (Pie Pelicane is referred to in the sixth stanza of Aquinas’ Adoro To Devote, and is a reference to the popular medieval myth of the pelican who pierced its own heart to feed its young), the Agnus Dei (the Lamb of God), a host over a chalice, the IHS (a monogram of the first two and last letters of the Greek, for Jesus Christ and also an abbreviation, in Latin, for Jesus, Savior of Humanity (Iesus Hominum Salvator). The image in the last window is of three stalks of wheat (the Bread of Life). The Sanctuary The Mary and Sacred Heart statues, standing above beautiful gold-mosaic and marble altars, and backed by rich red brocade, are by Samuel James Kitson. The floor of the church is terracotta, green and blue tile, as are the steps leading to the altar; the altar itself is inlaid with the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega (symbolizing Jesus as the fullness of wisdom) and the Latin Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) the words of the angels in Isaiah which are used in the Preface of the Mass. Delicate red mosaic pillars support the altar table. The painted shields of the upper sanctuary wall surrounding the altar are of some of the saints in the canon of the Mass. Above the altar is an ornate baldachin (canopy). Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the four Gospel writers, grace the base of the stone pulpit.
The three tapestries behind the altar (the generous and special gift of Eugene Wood and his wife) are American, hand woven, and depict the high priest Melchisedech blessing Abraham (Gen. 14:18-20); the Crucifixion; and Abraham arriving at the site of the sacrifice of Isaac, with two servants and the substitute sacrificial ram in the lower section. In the upper section, Abraham, about to slay Isaac, is stayed by an angel (Gen. 22:9-13)
The spectacular Rose window was a gift of the Heide family. Mostly non-representational, it does depict, in a wide circle, twelve angels playing musical instruments and, in the center, a chalice with a host. The designer, Clement Heaton, was an Englishman who worked for 30 years in Switzerland before coming to America in 1912. His studios and glass kilns were in West Nyack, New York. He also did six of the clerestory windows and seven of the lower windows.
-by Rosemary O'Connell; research by Donna Wandrey.