St. Gregory the Great: The Iconography
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

ATTRIBUTES: DOVE, TIARA, CROSSED SCEPTER, PALLIUM

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 (example).2

Other attributes relate to the office of Pope: the triple tiara and a long cross (example) 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. Ricci's painting, above right, shows the new Pope interceding with Mary and the Christ Child for the dead and dying people ranged at his feet.

THE MASS OF ST. GREGORY

In one famous episode in the Golden Legend 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 did it then somehow become the body of Christ? Gregory used the occasion to caution the congregation about seeing only with 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 episode make the miracle more explicit: the finger becomes the entire body of Christ (example), along with the instruments of his passion (example). Those instruments are known as the arma Christi, and an image of this type is called a "Mass of St. Gregory." "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

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

HOME PAGE

Sebastiano Ricci, The Altar of St. Gregory the Great (See the description page)

OTHER IMAGES (Click the thumbnail to see the full image and description page)

With other Benedictines in a Coronation of the Virgin

A Flemish Mass of St. Gregory

A Mass of St. Gregory from Bolivia

DATES

  • Born circa 540, died 604
  • Consecrated Pope 590

NAMES

  • In Orthodox hagiography called "Gregory the Dialogist"

HAGIOGRAPHY

  • Golden Legend #46: html or pdf
  • John the Deacon's Life of Gregory (in Latin): Acta Sanctorum, March vol. 2, March 12, 135-208)
  • Anonymous Latin Life: ibid., 130-135
  • Liber beati et laudabili viri Gregorii, ed. Gasquet
  • The South English Legendary (in Middle English), 355-59

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.