The Eucharist and Visual Culture

Post-conference reflections
Conference The Eucharist and Visual Culture, Sárospatak (Hungary) 2021

The organisers of the Conference on The Eucharist and Visual Culture in Sárospatak 2021, with INTERFILM Board member Viktor Kókai Nagy (middle; photo: © Timea Kókai Nagy)

If I ask you to think about a film representing the Eucharist, what film comes to mind? Do you think of classical Hollywood productions telling the story of Jesus and providing images of Jesus and the disciples breaking bread together? Or do you think of more symbolic representations such as the healing meal in Babette’s Feast? Maybe Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light comes to mind or the recent Polish film Corpus Christi?

After attending the conference The Eucharist and Visual Culture in beautiful Sárospatak in Hungary, my views on this topic have been greatly broaden – not just regarding the number of films that comes to mind, but also the approaches we can take to the Eucharist in visual culture. The conference took place October 1-3, 2021, and was organized by Hungarian Interfilm, the Reformed Theological Academy of Sárospatak, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hungary and the Tiszáninnen Reformed Church District. The gathering had a truly ecumenical grounding, bringing together scholars from different fields and denominations.

One theme – many perspectives

I had the honour of presenting the first paper, building on my previous research on religion in contemporary Nordic films. The focus was on one recurring encounter in Nordic films – the meeting of a pastor and convict or former convict in a church, a narrative in which the Eucharist often plays a part. These films often present the church as a space where change can happen and the Eucharist as a possible first step in this change. The way that the narratives both reuse and challenge some themes made famous by Ingmar Bergman was also brought up. While the Bergman’s well-known doubt prevails in Nordic films, the stories also show ways out of doubt, but in addition they often seem to challenge a protestant view of belief before practice. Action often seems to be the way forward and taken part in the Eucharist despite doubt a first step towards transformation.

Lajos Kovács continued with a Catholic interpretation of Corpus Christi in film. The lecture illustrated the breaths of ways the Eucharist has been presented in particularly Hollywood films but also in Italian, French, and Nordic productions. While Kovács presented a well-known theological critique of films aiming to present the story of Jesus – films bound to fail in their aims as the image the Bible presents of Jesus is much too complex to come alive on screen – the view on more symbolical presentations in the form of Christ stories were a lot more encouraging. Kovács brought forth a variety of Christ characters, characters including women and animals who all have managed well to touch audiences and capture the essence of the Christ story.

The way we can interpret and analyse the Eucharist in films was further deepened by Mariola Marczak insightful presentation. Marczak highlighted three ways in which the religious meaning of the Eucharist can be presented on screen. We first have the Eucharist as a special banquet, a theme used in several films and where the images often hark back to well-known visual representations of the Eucharist in classical art. Second, we have the Eucharist as Christ’s sacrifice, a theme often presented in film through characters that suffer for the sake of others. Third is the Eucharist as God’s presence, a theme that the film medium can bring forth in different ways and where it may be more up to the viewer to interpret what is being presented.

Visual culture beyond film

The conference was not just about film though, but about other forms of visual culture as well. These were dealt with in two workshops – one focusing on György Kepes, a famous Hungarian artist, and another one on cartoons. The fourth and last keynote also brought up visual aspects in other forms of culture than film. Károly Zsolt Nagy presented an informative paper on the Lord’s Table in the visual culture of Hungarian Reformed Communities. The reformed tradition often – and perhaps particularly for those like me with little knowledge of this tradition – brings to mind religious spaces absent of visual elements. However, the visual is of course a presence in the reformed churches too. It comes alive in decorative cloths and wall hangings, but also in the church space itself and the placement and construction of the Lord’s Table. The presentation illustrated well the meaning connected to space and how this meaning can be altered and reinterpreted.

Though I really enjoyed the keynotes, workshops and film screenings of this conference, conferences are not just about presenting research and panel discussions. This was my first conference in real life in almost two years and though I had forgotten how much effort it takes to travel, it was a true joy to get to talk to other scholars, film lovers and enthusiast of visual culture face to face. As we know, it is the coffee break, lunch and dinner conversations that truly make a conference. I therefore want to thank the organizers not just for giving me the opportunity to present my work and take part of some really thought inspiring presentations and films, but also for offering us, the participants, time and spaces for rewarding conversations. I am looking forward to seeing you all again soon!