“I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the Gentiles there is not a man with me: I have trampled on them in my indignation, and have trodden them down in my wrath, and their blood is sprinkled upon my garments, and I have stained all my apparel” (Is 63:3).
ICONOGRAPHY: THE MYSTICAL WINEPRESS [THE PRECIOUS BLOOD OF CHRIST]
“One of the most moving and incisive depictions stemming from Catholic devotion to the Blood of Christ is certainly that of the ‘mystical winepress,’ practically forgotten due to the impetuous assaults of a supposed Christianity without suffering or the Cross. In these representations Christ is portrayed as the fruit squeezed, whose juice, namely His Blood, is gathered up in a vat to be the drink of redemption for the sins of man. Christ is compared with the grape and, pressed like grapes in order to obtain wine, gives vital force to mankind. As such, Christ crushed by the Cross brings forth Blood for the spiritual salvation of man.
The iconography of the ‘Torculus Christi’ [the winepress of Christ] dates back to medieval times. Initially there was the simple depiction of the vine and the clusters of grapes. The image of Christ in the winepress spread from the 12th Century and, with the passing of the centuries, the divine Redeemer was portrayed in an ever more explicit manner with His Blood exuding under the pressure of the winepress. The image is inspired by the text of Isaiah (63:3): ‘I have trodden the winepress alone, and of the Gentiles there is not a man with me: I have trampled on them in my indignation, and have trodden them down in my wrath, and their blood is sprinkled upon my garments, and I have stained all my apparel.’
HELD IN A WINEPRESS IS HIS BODY, THAT IS, HIS CHURCH, THAT IS US
The credit for wisely uniting this passage of Isaiah with the marvellous cluster of grapes in Numbers, is to be attributed to St Augustine. ‘And going forward as far as the torrent of the cluster of grapes, they cut off a branch with its cluster of grapes, which two men carried upon a lever’ (Numbers 23:4). In his Exposition of the Psalms, the Bishop of Hippo’s comment is explicit: ‘My enemies have trodden on me all day long; for there are many that make war against me. From the height of the day I shall fear: but I will trust in thee… How therefore is He held in Geth? Held in a winepress is His Body, that is, His Church. What is, in a winepress? In pressings. But in a winepress fruitful is the pressing. A grape on the vine sustaineth no pressing, whole it seemeth, but nothing thence floweth: it is thrown into a winepress, is trodden, is pressed; harm seemeth to be done to the grape, but this harm is not barren; nay, if no harm had been applied, barren it would have remained. Let whatsoever holy men therefore that are suffering pressing from those that have been put afar off from the Saints, give heed to this Psalm, let them perceive here themselves, let them speak what here is spoken, that suffer what here is spoken of… The first cluster pressed in the vine vat was Christ. When that cluster by passion was pressed out, there flowed that wine whose chalice inebriating is so beautiful!’
PORTRAYALS OF THE MYSTICAL WINEPRESS
The most celebrated portrayal of the MYSTICAL WINEPRESS is certainly that executed by Andrew Mainardi, called Chiaveghino, for the high altar in the Church of St Augustine in Cremona, Italy, in 1594. This composition is entirely centred upon the figure of Christ Who, bent and burdened under the winepress which is being rotated by to angels, is extending His arms forward so that His Blood will fall from the wounds of His hands into the vat. God the Father is depicted with His arms opened wide in the highest heavens, far away from the true and proper crushing action. Below St Gregory the Great holds up, with the assistance of an angel, a chalice which is filled with the divine must, while other Church Fathers – Jerome to the right, Augustine and Ambrose to the left – are figured at the side of the winepress, behind which there is gathered a crowd of Faithful ready to taste the fruit of the Redemption. One of the details worth noting is that Augustine, with his right hand, is pointing to Christ Who by His sacrifice redeems humanity. The composition, truly unique of its kind, strongly emphasises the role of the Church (especially seen here in the person of St Gregory the Great who was a figure always associated with th Blood of Christ) as the intermediary between Christ and the throng of the Faithful.
THE GREATNESS OF CHRIST AND HIS CHURCH
In painting this work Mainardi alludes to the greatness of the merits of Christ and the Church: the Blood which gushes forth from the Redeemer’s wounds, is the lymph of the assembly of believers and is dispensed by the Church through penance and indulgences. The image of the TORCULUS CHRISTI – the winepress of Christ – was not foreign to medieval mysticism which did not fail to express itself with artistic portrayals of great interest.
THE CROSS AS THE WINEPRESS
Among the mystics worthy of great attention we find, without a doubt, the mystic of Florence, St Mary Magdalene de Pazzi (1566-1607), a contemporary of Mainardi. Tradition attributes an artistic design to the Saint which can be found in the cell where she died. On the back of the image is written: ‘This picture and the inscriptions seen in it were made by the very hand of St Mary Magdalene de Pazzi in whose published life is read: She, being in ecstasy in the dark, and with her eyes blindfolded, painted devout images on paper which, being miraculous, have been preserved.’
ST MARY MAGDALENE DE PAZZI AND THE WINEPRESS-CROSS
The design, which is rather simple, figures Christ bent under the weight of the Cross-press which is placed diagonally. Upon the four limbs one reads: HUMILITAS, INNOCENTIA, CASTITAS, CARITAS. His feet are resting upon the vat which is in the form of a heart, below which there flows a scroll with the words: EGO TORCULAR SOLUS CALCAVI. The Redeemer stands out in front and in His right hand He holds a carafe full of blood; His Blood is being poured out of the carafe into a chalice which a devout person on her knees (she herself) is holding. On the reverse side of the image there is written: ‘Bl. Albert the Great maintained: Recordatio Passionis Christi multo plus / iuvat homini, quam si integrum annum / ieiunerat in pane et aqua, vel si quotidie / virgis aut flagellis cederetur usque ad sanguinis effusionem vel si quotidie legeret / integrum Psalterium [The memory of Christ's Passion benefits man more than if he fasts on bread and water for a year, or if he disciplines himself to the shedding of blood with rod and whip, or if he daily reads the entire Psalter].
Even in her frequent ecstasies, the Saint returns to the theme of the TORCULUS CHRISTI and His Blood. In her thirty-fourth colloquy of April 17th, 1585, the Saint comments on her ecstasy of the preceding night in this way: ‘The fruitful vines are the souls in love with thee, oh Word, who would give their lives a thousand times daily, if it were possible, for thy love and in order to obtain souls for thee, souls whose vines are squeezed in the funnel, or rather in the true winepress of the memory of thy Passion.’…
The mystical transport of this Saint towards Christ and His saving Blood inspired in many ways the field of iconography. Noteworthy is the evocative canvas of the early 17th century kept in the Carmelite Church of Licata where the Saint is portrayed on her knees in front of Christ Crucified and is literally being hit with a wave of blood-light coming out from the Redeemer’s side, whilst the Virgin is crowning her.
The varied iconography of the TORCULUS CHRISTI demonstrates the ardent devotion of the Christian people towards the Lord’s Blood, the price of our redemption, the plant of benediction, the trophy of glory, the standard of salvation. It is necessary to return to this devotion in order to focus on Christianity anew on Him alone Who ransoms us at the price of His Blood which was wrenched out in the mystical winepress of the Cross.”
- This article was published in “De Vita Contemplativa”, (Monthly Magazine for Monasteries), issue July 2013.