Rogier van der Weyden’s altarpiece (c.1445)
Last week, I visited the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, with a specific goal in mind: Rogier van der Weyden’s masterpiece, “The Seven Sacraments”. My visit was not solely to admire this exquisite triptych but also to delve deeper into the meaning of the seven sacraments. This exploration hereunder will be guided by seven works of art as visual narratives, with Van der Weyden’s triptych serving as our starting point.
The Seven Sacraments in seven paintings
Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration and initiation into the Church that was begun by Jesus, who accepted baptism from St. John the Baptist. Baptism is understood, therefore, as the annulment of one’s sins and the emergence of a completely innocent person.
A sacrament that is conferred through the anointing with oil and the imposition of hands, Confirmation is believed to strengthen or confirm the grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit at baptism. The Confirmation rite is a relatively simple ceremony that is traditionally performed during the Mass by the bishop, who raises his hands over those receiving Confirmation and prays for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. He then anoints the forehead of each confirmand with holy oil and says, “Accipe Signaculum Doni Spiritus Sancti” (“Be sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit”).
This sacrament of reconciliation or penance, reflects the practice of restoring sinners to the community of the faithful by confessing one’s sins to a priest. The Roman Catholic Church claims that the absolution of the priest is an act of forgiveness. To receive it, the penitent must confess all serious sins, manifest genuine sorrow for sins, and have a reasonably firm purpose to make amends. The sacrament of confession was rejected by most of the Reformers on the grounds that God alone can forgive sins, and not through a priest.
The Eucharist (from the Greek word “εὐχαριστία” which means “thanksgiving”) is the central act of Christian worship, also known as Holy Communion and the Lord’s Supper. The rite was instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper when he blessed the bread, which he said was his body, and shared it with his disciples. He then shared a cup of wine as his blood. Jesus called on his followers to repeat the ceremony in his memory. It is a commemoration of his sacrifice on the cross.
Ordination is a sacrament essential to the church, as it bestows an unrepeatable, indelible character upon the priest being ordained. The essential ceremony consists of the laying of hands of the bishop upon the head of the one being ordained, with prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit and of grace required for the carrying out of the ministry.
Marriage as a sacrament, also known as holy matrimony, is the covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership for the whole of life, administered in the presence of a priest. However, the inclusion of marriage among the sacraments gives the Roman Catholic Church jurisdiction over an institution that is of as much concern to the state as it is to the church.
Anointing of the sick
This sacrament is conferred by anointing the forehead and hands with blessed oil and pronouncing a prayer. It may be conferred only on those who are seriously ill or on elderly people who are experiencing the frailties of old age. In popular belief, anointing is most valuable as a complement to confession or, in the case of unconsciousness, as a substitute for it. Anointing is not the sacrament of the dying; it is the sacrament of the sick.