While performing mass one day, an important 6th-century pope and one of the fathers of the early Roman Church called Gregory, overheard an onlooker express doubts about Christ’s actual presence at the altar during mass. He prayed for a sign and as he raised the consecrated host (the bread), Christ miraculously materialized above the altar as the Man of Sorrows, displaying the stigmata and surrounded by the instruments and symbols of his Passion.
Shown wearing a chasuble over a dalmatic, a long-standing custom for bishops celebrating solemn pontifical Masses, Saint Gregory gazes up intently at Christ. Miraculously, Precious Blood from the side of Christ sprouts into the chalice the pope is holding. Gregory is assisted by a candle-holding deacon and a deacon who rings the bell for mass while raising the Pope’s chasuble during the elevation of the chalice. A very young sub-deacon is swinging a thurible while pointing up to the alter (during the Holy Mass, the altar and bible are being incensed). Part of Saint Gregory’s entourage are also two cardinals dressed in red. One is standing in the back, holding Saint Gregory’s Papel triple tiara, a headgear with three crowns or levels. Beside him Saint Ambrose, dressed in green with a miter, holds Saint Gregory’s three armed Papel cross in the one hand and the papal indulgence letter in the other. In the left corner the other cardinal is kneeling, he is praying from a book.
Together with Christ, some of the instruments of the Passion of Christ miraculously appear above the altar. They help the viewer to empathize with the suffering of Christ. Christ is shown wearing the crown of thorns on his head. Beside Christ the pillar or column is visible where He was whipped in the Flagellation of Christ. Attached to the pillar by the rope that bound Christ are the whip and birches, used for the 39 lashes. On top the pillar stands the rooster (or cock) that crowed after Peter’s third denial of Jesus. Behind Christ the Cross on which He was crucified (True Cross) is visible. It contains the nails and around it the hammer appears (used to drive the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet) and the pincers used to remove the nails. Placed against the cross are the Holy Lance with which a Roman soldier inflicted the final of the Five Wounds in Christ’s side. Placed behind the cross is the ladder used for the deposition or removal of Christ’s body from the cross for burial. Interlinked with one step of the ladder is the sponge-on-a-stick from which He drank vinegar while being crucified. Hanging on the cross is the lantern from the garden of Gethsemane and behind the cross is the torch, both used by the arresting soldiers at the time of the betrayal. Nearby is the sword used by Peter, and the ear of the High Priest’s servant which Peter cut off in his attempt to prevent the arrest. On top of the cross is the pitcher and cloth used by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate to wash his hands of Christ’s death. At the bottom of the cross three vessels of myrrh are placed, used to anoint the body of Jesus. Beside it three dices are piled up. They are the dice with which the soldiers cast lots for Christ’s seamless robe. Right above the head of Saint Gregory, an image with the Veil of Veronica is attached to a marble column.
Allegedly, when Pope Gregory received his vision in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, he promised a 14.000-year indulgence to all repentant attendees. Filled with concern about what would happen to his soul after death, hell, heaven and purgatory were top-of-mind for medieval man. To be ensured a spot in heaven, and to pay for their sins in purgatory as short as possible, the redemption of punishment for sins by indulgences was part of every-day-life. Pope Gregory’s promise led to many pilgrims coming to this church to pray for an indulgence at the relics of the passion of Christ. If one could not travel to Rome to earn an indulgence, one could also pray in front of a panel such as this Mass of Saint Gregory.
The pious legend of the event was chronicled by the eighth-century Benedictine monk Paul the Deacon in his biography of Pope Gregory, Vita Beati Gregorii Papae. It was later retold in the thirteenth-century Golden Legend. In the 16th century Saint Gregory’s vision became very popular again because of its focus on transubstantiation—the belief that the bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Christ during Mass. It is no coincidence that the artistic representation of this Eucharistic Miracle became especially prominent in Europe during the Protestant Reformation.
The quality of execution of the painting, the rendering of facial expressions and the particular care used to represent the costly gowns of the figures are remarkable. The rendering of the drapery and the dark use of colours, point towards an artist working in Flanders or Germany around 1520/1540. According to prof. dr. A. Stange in the 1961 exhibition catalogue of Singer Museum, the painting may be attributed to the Master of The Aachen Altarpiece. Anno 2019 dr. Henri Defoer (former director of the Museum Het Catherijne Convent in Utrecht), suggests a Master from the Cologne region. It is known that during the 16th-century the subject matter of Saint Gregory was rather popular.
– private collection mrs. A. Eecen-Van Setten, Leeuwarden, around 1961;
– private collection, The Netherlands.
– Laren, Singer Museum, ‘Nederlandse Primitieven’, July-Sept 1961, cat.no. 94 (attributed to the Master of The Aachen Altarpiece).
Literature for reference
– Religious Themes in Painting from the 14th Century Onwards (March 16 to May 5, 1962), Wildenstein & Co. (London), March 16 to May 5, 1962.
– Prof. dr. A. Stange, Cologne, 28 November 1953, to be dated 1520.
– Dr. Henri Defoer (former director of the Museum Het Catherijne Convent in Utrecht), Utrecht, 25 April 2019, who suggested the present attribution.