Ercole de' Roberti, The Institution of the Eucharist
Two Panels from a Predella
The Institution of the Eucharist and The Israelites gathering Manna were once part of a predella – a row of scenes along the base of an altarpiece – made for the church of San Domenico in Ferrara. The main panel showed Christ after his death, lying on his grieving mother’s lap, surrounded by mourners. Two of these figures are portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara. The altarpiece may have been made to commemorate the death of the Duchess, who had a particular interest in the Corpus Christi (‘body of Christ’), especially its celebration at the Eucharist. The predella probably concealed a container for the bread of the Eucharist, disguised by the image of the Last Supper, which also functioned as the container’s door. The story of the Israelites gathering manna – a heavenly ‘bread’ that fed them during their travels in the wilderness before reaching Israel – was often interpreted as a forerunner of the ‘heavenly bread’ of Christ’s body.
The Institution of the Eucharist and The Israelites gathering Manna were once part of a predella of an altarpiece made for the church of San Domenico in Ferrara. The former was probably the central panel, flanked on either side by two rectangular panels – one showing the gathering of the manna, the other Abraham and Melchizedek (while the original of this scene has been lost, an early copy, now in private collection, shows how it would have looked). The main panel of the altarpiece showed the dead Christ lying on his mother’s lap, surrounded by mourners. This type of image is known as a Lamentation.
It is possible that the altarpiece was made to commemorate Eleonora of Aragon, the Ducchess of Ferrara, who died in 1493. Ercole, the painter for the court at Ferrara, made the diptych of The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Dead Christ for Eleonora only a few years earlier. Portraits of Eleonora, her husband Ercole I d‘Este, the Duke of Ferrara, and her brother Alfonso of Aragon are included in the altarpiece. Eleonora is shown as a mourner, her husband as Nicodemus, a Jewish High Priest who brought spices to anoint Jesus’s body, and her brother as Joseph of Arimathea, the man who offered Christ his family tomb. The inclusion of all three family members suggests that the altarpiece was intended as a homage to Eleonora after her death. She had a simple funeral and grave and so it is plausible that she may have had a more elaborate memorial in the form of an altarpiece.
Eleonora was particularly devoted to the Corpus Christi (Latin for ’the body of Christ') which was celebrated in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The body of Christ was the subject of the diptych Ercole painted for Eleonora and this altarpiece, with its focus on Christ’s sacrifice and body, would have been a fitting memorial to her.