St. Gregory the Great

Matthew Alderman

St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great

As with many of my works in ink, this project was in part inspired by the woodcuts of the fifteenth-century master Albrecht Dürer. However, I departed from my usual models in my depiction of St. Gregory, who is shown here not as a medieval bishop or a baroque pontiff, but in an atmosphere redolent of the austere grandeur of that nebulous, uncertain time between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. This is not to say there is not some measure of deliberate anachronism here as well that links the image back to Rome’s ancient past and forward to the present day.

I set about to depict St. Gregory the Great in a manner that alludes to Benedict XVI’s search for unity with the Eastern Orthodox churches through references to our shared heritage, and to the role that the papacy has played in guarding those inherited truths. Gregory’s vesture is that of a bishop of his day, with the distinctive pallium formerly restricted to the pope depicted in the form most commonly associated with Benedict’s pontificate. However, the figure of the acolyte bearing the pope’s mitre is a deliberate anachronism. Mitres are known to have been worn as early as about a hundred years after Gregory’s time, and originated as a distinctive non-liturgical piece of papal regalia known as the camelaucum. Its appearance here makes reference both to Gregory’s authority as Bishop of Rome, and also, due to its distinctive Western shape, to his authority as Patriarch of the Latin Rite. The simple band around its base is a subtle reference to the coronet worn at the base of the camelaucum, which in time grew into the magisterial beauty of the tiara. Rather than supplanting or replacing the tiara, this is its magnificence in seed form. It also recalls, in conjunction with the pallium, Benedict’s own favored form of vesture.

The triple-barred cross is at once a reference to the traditions of the High Middle Ages that depicted canonized pontiffs with such an insignia and to the pastoral staff adopted by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. While the triple-barred cross is predominantly an invention of the world of art rather than serving as an accurate representation of liturgical praxis, here it serves subtly to link past, present and future.

Gregory’s posture is a fairly literal quotation of Ingres’s 1806 “Portrait of Napoleon on the Imperial Throne.” There is some deliberate and triumphal irony here, considering that the Church has outlasted Napoleonic glory. It is also intended to return the pseudo-theological airs of Ingres’s work to their proper domain, considering how strongly Napoleon apes both the poses of a Byzantine Christ in majesty and a pagan Jupiter in Ingres’s depiction. Christ’s pose on the metalwork cover of the gospel book Gregory holds in his right hand further compounds the quotation.

This, in turn, introduces another antique reference into the work, hinting at the ancient city and already venerable institution that Gregory occupied. His face suggests the survival of strength and virility in the face of age. It is inspired by the Dürer depiction of the Old Testament strongman Sampson, and also by those same images of Jove that Ingres would have known from casts and engravings, and which might have peeped out of mud and moss in the days of St. Gregory and of his father, the Roman senator St. Gordian. This, in turn, suggests the amazing antiquity of the papacy, its apostolic origin, and the pre-Christian roots of the title Pontifex Maximus, showing that in Christ all things can be made new, baptized and turned to the good of the faith. We see here a true Pontifex—- bridge-builder—- uniting East and West, old and new, antique and modern, a mirror of prudence and justice for our age and all ages to come.