Monday, August 29, 2011

Gregory`s Children

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828)
Saint Gregory the Great / San Gregorio Magno
1796 - 99
Oil on canvas
190 x 115 cm
Museo del Romanticismo, Madrid

The painting of St Gregory the Great by Goya is exhibited above the altar in the intimate chapel in the Museum It is the museum's most valuable painting,

It was one of four canvases depicting the four Doctors of the Church, The institution for which it was intended is not known but it may have been for a Jesuit institution

Saint Jerome in Penitence, 1798 is in The Norton Simon Museum

St Ambrose is in The Cleveland Museum of Art

St Augustine is in a private collection

The depiction shows St Gregory the Great as a luminous majestic monumental figure. Goya depicts the great saint through his facial features, the concentration, the hands, the writing and the great books on his lap, symbols of one of the great and most proific writers of the Early Church

Some have seen a relationship between Goya's Gregory and Augustine and Murillo's depiction of the same subjects

He was at the height of his powers. In 1799 he was appointed first court painter, the highest artistic position attainable.

I always remember my sheer amazement at coming across the tomb of St Gregory the Great in St Peter`s Basilica in Rome, I had never realised that he was buried there.

In front of the huge altar there was a simple plaque announcing that it was there that the bones of St Gregorio Magno was buried. One of the greatest Popes and historical figures, without whom there would have been no medieval Church. No medieval Church, no Western civilisation as we know it. For such a great figure it was a rather non descript anonymous place

In the space of 30 minutes no one else bothered about it. The tourists were congregated around more "famous" sights in the Basilica

He was one of the great pivotal figures in Western history.

It can be truly said that if he had not lived the world would have been an extremely different place.

As regards his significance, he is recognised as "Great" not simply by the Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church and other non-Roman Catholic Churches all recognise him as "Great", as a Saint and commemorate him and his memory

The painting above the altar does not help. The subject is "The Mass of St Gregory". Not many Catholics now recall the significance of the story or even know what it is about.

The fact that compared to the other Papal tombs such as Gregory XIV in the Basilica, it is relatively non-descript. Who now recalls Gregory XIV or regards him as one of the "great" Popes ? Yet in the 19th century, Gregory XIV, the last monk to become Pope, took the name of "Gregory" because of his reverence for Gregory the Great. Both had been abbots in Rome before their election to the Papacy.

The German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius ( 1821 – 1891), no friend of the Papacy, said of Pope Saint Gregory the Great:

"The sixth century is one of the most memorable in history.

In it mankind experienced the overthrow of a great and ancient civilization, and on this account believed that the end of the world had come. A thick cloud of barbarism, as it were of dust arising from the crash, hung over the Roman Empire devastated through out its length and breadth by the destroying angel, dealing pestilence and other ills. The world entered upon a turning-point in its development.

Upon the ruins of the ancient Empire, amid which the Goths, premature heralds of Germany, had perished, fresh forms of national life now slowly arose ; in Italy, through the instrumentality of the Lombards ; in Gaul, through that of the Franks ; in Spain, by means of the Visigoths ; in Britain, by those of the Saxons. The Catholic Church everywhere constituted itself the vital principle of these growing nations. To the Church they turned as to a centre, and, through the conquest of Arianism, the Church by degrees drew them together in a union which was destined, sooner or later, to give political form to a new Western Empire.

These events took place at a time when the East was stirred by a like impulse of development ; when Mohammed had appeared to found a new religion, which, uniting nations on the Eastern ruins of the Roman dominion, forced the Byzantine Empire first to return to Italy, and then for centuries to be the bulwark of Hellenic culture in the West.

Gregory and Mohammed were the two priests of the West and East. Each founded a hierarchy on the ruins of antiquity, and through the concussion of the two systems the future fate of Europe and Asia was decided. Rome and Mecca, here the Basilica of St. Peter, there the Caaba, became the symbolic temples of the Covenants of the European and the Asiatic world, while the marvel of the Byzantine Empire, the Church built by Justinian to St. Sophia, remained the centre of existing Hellenism."

Gregorovius Rome in the Middle Ages ii. 70

Pieter Pauwel Rubens 1577 = 1640
The Ecstasy of St Gregory the Great
Oil on canvas
477 x 288 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble

Rubens was commissioned to paint The Ecstasy of Saint Gregory the Great when he was staying in Rome.

It was meant for the high altar of the Oratorians' main church, Santa Maria Vallicella. The majestic Baroque classical composition fitted in well with the prevailing ethos of the Counter-Reformation, in one of the main centres of the Counter-Reformation.

At the time Rubens regarded this painting as one the best he produced.

Unfortunately in situ the painting reflected the light and was rejected, another painting being put in its place

When he left Italy, Rubens took the work with him and it hung over the tomb of his mother in the Abbey Saint Michael, Antwerp

The saints who surround the figure of St Gregory are now obscure legendary early martyrs: Maurus, Papianus, Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus. All are either gazing at the figures of Madonna and Child or looking at the spectator. The painting of the Madonna and Child is the "Madonna di Vallicella", a painting believed to possess certain powers.

But again we see the majestic monumental form of Saint Gregory, one of the pillars of the Church.

There are only a few biographies of Gregory in English. One of the last great ones is Frederick Holmes Dudden`s Gregory the Great : his place in history and thought (1905). Volumes One and Two can be downloaded from the Internet Archive: Volume One and Volume Two

In his Preface, Dudden explained the greatness of Gregory. In Europe we are all Gregory`s children:

"Gregory the Great is certainly one of the most notable figures in ecclesiastical history.

He has exercised in many respects a momentous influence on the doctrine, the organization, and the discipline of the Catholic Church. To him we must look for an explanation of the religious situation of the Middle Ages : indeed, if no account were taken of his work, the evolution of the form of mediaeval Christianity would be almost inexplicable. And further, in so far as the modern Catholic system is a legitimate development of mediaeval Catholicism, of this too Gregory may not unreasonably be termed the Father.

In recent times an attempt has been made to distinguish the Christianity of the first six centuries from that of the Schoolmen and the later divines. But to any one who will take the trouble to examine the writings of the last great Doctor of the sixth century, the futility of this arbitrary distinction will soon become apparent.

Almost all the leading principles of the later Catholicism are found, at any rate in germ, in Gregory the Great.

Nor, again, can those who are interested only in purely secular history afford to overlook the work of one of the greatest of the early Popes, whose influence was felt alike by the Byzantine Emperors, by the Lombard princes, by the kings in Britain, Gaul, and Spain.

Gregory was by far the most important personage of his time.

He stood in the very centre of his world, and overshadowed it. He took an interest and claimed a share in all its chief transactions ; he was in relation,more or less intimate, with all its leading characters. If the history of the latter part of the sixth century is to be studied intelligently, it must be studied in close connexion with the life and labours of that illustrious Pontiff, who for many years was the foremost personage in Europe, and did more, perhaps, than any other single man to shape the course of European development.

Finally, to Gregory the students of English history are more especially bound to devote their attention, since it is he who was the means of introducing Christianity among the English, and of renewing the broken communications between Britain and the Roman world. How far-reaching have been the effects of his action it is unnecessary to point out. I will only remark that, in respect of the history of the doctrine of the English Church, Gregory's theology is of particular interest. For the system of dogma which was introduced into our island by Augustine was the system elaborated by Augustine's revered master."

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) makes it clear that he was not a great philosopher, theologian, conversationalist, nor a great intellectual:

"[I]t will be best to clear the ground by admitting frankly what Gregory was not. He was not a man of profound learning, not a philosopher, not a conversationalist, hardly even a theologian in the constructive sense of the term. He was a trained Roman lawyer and administrator, a monk, a missionary, a preacher, above all a physician of souls and a leader of men. His great claim to remembrance lies in the fact that he is the real father of the medieval papacy"

Perhaps in an era where Europe prides itself on intellectual ability and talent and because of the Enlightenment "worships" the Intellect, Gregory is ignored.

Perhaps we need a new history of St Gregory the Great. His story is a remarkable one. The present day needs to be reminded of it. We are all Gregory`s children.

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