Some Unique Designs in the Frontispieces of the Missale Romanum

Look at your typical frontispiece of a traditional Missale Romanum (the Roman Missal) and most of us will be accustomed to seeing the textual elements of this title page accompanied by some sort of art. Frequently this is an illustration of the Last Supper or a Crucifixion, or in other instances it could be the papal coat of arms of the pope under which that particular edition of the missal was issued or so on. But while these are common expressions they are certainly not exclusive ones and today I thought it night be of interest to look at some frontispieces that show less typically seen themes.

Our first example comes from a Missale Romanum published in 1740. This particular edition includes a frontispiece which depicts an Old Testament theme: the Sacrifice of Abraham. For those who find the inclusion of an Old Testament scene for a missal "curious" it is actually entirely apropos as the (near) sacrifice of his son Isaac by Abraham is, of course, a "type" foreshadowing the sacrifice of Christ, which itself is fundamentally related to the Mass of course.  Small details like these teach.

Continuing on with this Old Testament theme, we see in this altar missal published in Venice in 1759 another foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ and the Christian priesthood in the offering of a holocaust by the Jewish high priest, presumably representing Aaron, brother of Moses and founder of the Israelite priesthood. 

Our next example gives us a nice transition from Old Testament imagery in that of the new through this frontispiece, included in a missal published in 1759, which present an allegory of the Church and the Synagogue. This is done by way of showing a pope -- the Christian 'high priest' -- holding the Cross and symbols of the Eucharist, and also mentions of Africa and America, presumably denoting the Christian missionary imperative, and seated beside him is a figure of a Jewish high priest, again possibly depicting Aaron, holding the tablets of the Mosaic Law.   This depiction intends to show the connection between the old and new covenants. 

As we move into depictions of a more specifically Christian content, we now turn to this missal published in 1612 which has a frontispiece depicting St. Lawrence, martyr, along with three popes: St. Pius V, Clement VIII and Paul V.  The artistic style of this particular frontispiece, it is worth noting, is fairly typical to what was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries; bold contrasts (presumably woodcuts) with strong neo-classical influences -- a subject perhaps for a future article.

Some missals also included a secondary type of title page, such as this from 1654 showing a depiction of St. Mark with his symbolic lion. The missal was published in Venice so it should come as little surprise to see this emphasis on St. Mark, the patron of that stately city-state. 

Speaking of the Evangelists, this 1641 frontispiece depicts all four evangelists with their respective symbols:

This 1680 edition of the missal includes an image of St. John and the Blessed Virgin.

Some altar missals include scenes which are explicitly liturgical in nature, such as this edition of the missal, published in 1800, which depicts a pope opening a holy door:

This 1645 edition of the missal includes, amongst more usual inclusions like Ss. Peter and Paul, an illustration of a Solemn Pontifical Mass.

Another similar illustration can be found in an 18th century edition of the Missal, depicting the Miracle of St. Gregory. This constitutes another "secondary" illustration like the one we showed previously. 

As noted earlier, papal themes are frequently found in the frontispieces of Roman missals -- hardly a surprise. Some less typical papal themes also emerge, such as this frontispiece found in a missal dated to 1600-1630 which shows the barque of St. Peter. Also included in this design are depictions of the four evangelists.

Our final consideration is taken from a missal published in 1700, showing an angel holding papal symbols with St. Peter's Basilica behind. An interesting inclusion in this particular imagery is that of the all-seeing eye -- frequently thought to be exclusively occultist in nature, but actually also a symbol that was popularly used in a Christian context in previous centuries.

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