St. Gregory the Great: The Iconography

In Rome, St. Gregory I, Pope, Confessor, and outstanding Doctor of the Church. He is called "the Great" and "Apostle of the English" because of his mighty deeds and the conversion of the English to Christ. – Roman Martyrology for March 12

St. Gregory is called "The Great" because of his writings, his reforms of the liturgy and liturgical music, and his vigorous leadership of the church during a very difficult period in its history. He was the first Pope who had also been a monk. He was also the Pope who initiated the mission to the Anglo-Saxons and guided the work of the missionaries through a voluminous correspondence, part of which is recorded in Bede's Ecclesiastical History.1 His influential writings on a multitude of religious topics earned him a place among the "Fathers of the Church" with Saints Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrose.

ATTRIBUTES

One story omitted from the Golden Legend but found in other accounts had an important influence on the portraits. A scribe of Gregory's related that he saw a dove alight on the saint while he was composing his homily on the Ezechiel 1:25, "a voice came from above the firmament." Whenever the dove would start whispering in the saint's ear, he would commence dictating to the scribe, and when the dove stopped the dictation also stopped. The homily itself identified the voice in Ezechiel with the Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism. On the strength of this story, the dove became a common attribute of St. Gregory, as in the first picture at right, though usually it is the saint himself who is doing the writing (example).2

Other attributes relate to the office of Pope: the triple tiara and a papal cross (as in the first picture at right) or a scepter topped by a cross (example), and/or the pallium (example).

THE GREAT PLAGUE

According to the Golden Legend the people of Rome chose a reluctant Gregory to be their Pope when his predecessor was among the first to die from an epidemic of the bubonic plague. While the plague ravaged the city, Gregory's first act was to organize three days of prayers and processions in which an image of the Virgin was carried through the streets. The second picture on the right shows one of the processions.

The Legend also says the Pope knew the plague was ending when he saw an angel descend to the summit of Hadrian's tomb and sheath his sword. From then on, the tomb was known as Castel Sant'Angelo, the castle of the holy angel. The Castel appears in the background of the first picture on the right.

THE MASS OF ST. GREGORY

The third picture on the right illustrates the episode in the Golden Legend when St. Gregory was about to give a woman the communion host with the traditional words, "May the body of Christ protect you unto eternal life." When the woman smiled in seeming incredulity he took back the host, set it on the altar, and continued with the Mass. When the service concluded he asked the woman why she had smiled and she replied that she was the one who had baked that bread; how then could it be the body of Christ? Gregory used the occasion to caution the congregation about seeing only with the eye of the mind. Then he went back to the altar to get the host he had set aside. What he found, however, was a little finger bleeding on the cloth.

Subsequent retellings and images of this "Mass of St. Gregory" episode make the miracle more explicit and more dramatic. The finger becomes the entire body of Christ. The setting is a sumptuous cathedral. The woman is replaced by two attending deacons and a number of important-looking male bystanders. Often one of the bystanders is seen holding Gregory's tiara for him. In the background of many examples one sees the arma Christi, the instruments of Christ's passion.

"Eucharistic miracles" like this continued to be reported through the ages. One of the more famous was the "Miracle of Bolsena" in the 14th century. Another was reported at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta, Georgia, in the 19th century.3 In Galicia an altarpiece memorializing another eucharistic miracle follows "Mass of St. Gregory" iconography precisely but sets it in parallel to a Pietà.

THE PRAYER FOR TRAJAN

Another episode in the Legend involves St. Gregory's prayer for the Emperor Trajan. As the Pope was passing through the Forum of Trajan, he was reminded of the man's many good deeds, particularly one in which he had set aside his preparations for war in order to hear a case brought by a poor widow. He had been reluctant at first, telling the woman she could wait till he returned. But she pointed out that if he died in the war some successor might hear her case. "What good will it do you if someone else rights my loss?" That convinced the emperor to do the right thing.

Weeping over the thought that pagan idolatry should keep this good man from Heaven, Gregory went to St. Peter's to pray for him. Then he heard God's voice promising that Trajan would be spared eternal punishment.

In the Divine Comedy Dante finds a carving of Trajan and the widow's story among the images of humility in Purgatorio X (70-93). Then he encounters Trajan himself in Heaven, just as God had promised Gregory, in ParadisoXX, 71-76.

In his Justice of Trajan (1840) Eugène Delacroix paints the scene of the widow and emperor as described in Dante and in the Legend. The painting applies Delacroix's well-known techniques of heroic portraiture to characterize the emperor in the moment before the woman's riposte changes him. The painter thus calls into question the very imagery for which he has become so famous.

THE MISSION TO THE ANGLO-SAXONS

According to the Golden Legend Gregory had been planning to go on mission to the Anglo-Saxons before he was persuaded to accept the papacy. He had encountered some young "Angles" being offered as slaves in the market and was struck by their fair hair and complexion. He said they were not "Angles" but "angels." A painting in the Church of St. Gregory in Ribeauvillé, France, appears to reference this story.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2018-08-03.

HOME PAGE

St. Gregory the Great, with the Castel Sant'Angelo in the background. (See the description page.)

OTHER IMAGES

The Procession of St. Gregory, in Rome's Basilica of St. Peter in Chains. See the description page for details.

A Spanish Mass of St. Gregory. See the description page.

MORE IMAGES

  • 15th century: In the predella of an altarpiece in Salamanca, a chalice is used as St. Gregory's attribute.
  • 16th century: Statue of St. Gregory as one of the Fathers of the Church.
  • 16th century: Fresco in Croatia with dove, pen, and book.
  • 1513-14: Molder's "Mass of St. Gregory" – background is not the arma christi but just the Cross and the pillar where Jesus was scourged.
  • 1573-75: Zucchi's Procession of St. Gregory.
  • 1594: A detail from Tintoretto's Coronation of the Virgin with Gregory and other Benedictines.
  • Second half of the 18th century: A statue of St. Gregory with dove, pen, book, and tiara.

DATES

  • Feast day (Roman Catholic): September 3, for the day he was consecrated Pope in 590.
  • Feast day (Other churches and secondarily for Roman Catholics): March 12, for the day he died.
  • Born circa 540, died 604

NAMES

  • In Orthodox hagiography called "Gregory the Dialogist"

HAGIOGRAPHY

NOTES

1 Butler, I, 566-71, Catholic Encyclopedia s.v. "Pope St. Gregory I," Bede, Ecclesiastical History, II, 1.

2 Gasquet, 34. Acta Sanctorum, March vol. 2, March 12, 135.

3 Mitchell, 10.