Jean-François Montessuy (1804–1876)
Pope Gregory XVI Visiting the Church of San Benedetto at Subiaco
Oil on canvas
125.1 x 140.7 cm
The Metropolitan Museum, New York
In the late 18th and early 19th century the French painters who went to Rome discovered the village town of Subiaco.
They were entranced.
Originally it was the village which was built for housing the slaves of the Emperor Nero who had a villa nearby. The villa is destroyed and few ruins remain.
However that is not why people visited and do visit the village now . There was and there is much more to see
Montessuy did not see this visit of the Pope which took place on April 30, 1834 while Montessuy was still in France. He did not set out for Rome for another two years
The visit by Pope Gregory is described in detail in the monastery’s chronicle, Libro delle Memorie dal 1831 al 1850 (housed in the library of its sister institution, Santa Scolastica):
". . . After a brief rest in the Abbot’s Apartment, where he picked up the mozzetta and the Pontifical stole, the Holy Father entered the Superior Church, whence, having venerated the Most Blessed Sacrament, he descended to the Sacred Cave to celebrate the Holy Mass, assisted by the R[eve]r[end] F[athers] Abbots Bini and Piacenti."
Abbot Vincenzo Bini had been Abbot of the Abbey of San Pietro in Perugia and in 1825 became Procurator General of the Cassinese Congregation. He later became Abbot of the Great Abbey of St Paul in Rome.
He knew, assisted and trained amongst many others Dom Gueranger the founder of the new French Benedictines
The chronicle also describes the deep impression the event of the visit made on the area`s inhabitants:
"While the Holy Father ascended the steep slopes, the Municipal Administrators of Jenne were expressing their jubilation with the continuous firing of mortars, and at the same time the village people, as well as others from nearby villages, men and women spread out around the tortuous turns of that road, paid him homage with their acclamations, giving him unequivocal demonstrations of their tender devotion, to which his Sanctity responded with the most endearing gestures of his benevolent nature, listening to the supplications of many, and permitting to all the kissing of the Foot."
The scene is of course the site leading to the cave where St Benedict of Nursia (c. 480 – 21 March 543 or 547), the patron saint of Europe, spent three years as a hermit before establishing twelve communities for monks at Subiaco and then later at Monte Cassino
The scene of the painting is set at the top of the Scala Santa with the fresco of Pope Innocent III to the left
The artist has taken some licence
Here it is today
The Benedictine Rule became the foundation of Western Monasticism
The Sacred Cave can be seen here.
It is the principal point of reference of the whole monastery complex
There have been many visits by reigning Popes and many Popes have given the monastery many privileges
Pope Gregory XVI was Pope from 2 February 1831 until his death on 1 June 1846
He did not have a good press while he was alive. Even today if he is mentioned his name is accompanied by a clearing of the throat.
In 1805 he was made abbot of the Monastery of San Gregorio on Rome's Caelian Hill. He was the last monk to be elected pope
Although a cardinal, he was not a bishop. He was the last man so far to be elected Pope prior to his episcopal consecration. He had to be consecrated as bishop after his election as Pope
The visit would have been an emotional one for the Pope. He had been Abbot of the Monastery where Pope Gregory the Great had been Abbot and founder. He had taken his name as Pontiff. Pope Gregory the Great was the author of the Life of St Benedict
Now derided as an extreme reactionary, it is often forgotten that he was the author of In Supremo Apostolatus - Condemning the Slave Trade