#OTD: St Gregory the Great is Elected as Pope
St Gregory, Miracles Stories, and the Circulation of Late Medieval Imagery
On this day in 590, Gregory, the son of a Roman senator, was elected as Pope at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Often called Gregory the Great because of his many influential writings and liturgical reforms of the Mass, Gregory is often considered to be the first medieval pope. The last of the Latin Fathers, he was responsible for sending St Augustine of Canterbury to England in 597. Upon his death in 604, he was almost immediately made a saint of the Church. Up until 1969, his feast day was celebrated on 12 March (the day of his death). Due to scheduling issues with the Lenten liturgy, his feast day was moved to 3 September, the day it is said he was elected pope.
Around 880, Paul the Deacon composed his The Life of St Gregory, which recorded a particular story that would come to greatly influence the art and propaganda of the Church in later centuries. In this story, an unnamed woman comes to receive communion from Gregory. As he presents the host to her, she ‘laughs as if at a joke.’ The woman then explains that she knows this is not the true body of Christ, because she had baked the host breads herself. At this, Gregory prayed before the altar. As he finished praying, he looked up, and the woman’s uneaten host had turned into the bloody finger of Christ! Once the doubting woman had repented of her unbelief, the finger turned back into the host wafer, and the woman received communion.
This story from the 9th century would later morph into the common motif that is now known as the Mass of St Gregory. This image only became popular after 1400, and Kathryn M Rudy explains that this is due to certain Carthusian propaganda. In the late 14th century, the Carthusians at the Basilica di Sta Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome were given a sixth-century mosaic of the wounded, post-Passion Christ. In the west, this image would be known as the Man of Sorrows. Legend holds that the mosaic, measuring only 13 x 19 cm, was commissioned by Gregory when he was pope. To build up a following to the icon, Rudy argues, the Carthusians related the mosaic to the miracle of the bloody finger recorded in St Gregory’s vita. The miracle story was altered to fit the narrative the Carthusians were trying to create around the mosaic. The bloody finger of Christ became his whole body, and the doubting woman became the pious Pope. Today, the most widely circulated medieval image of the saint is this loose interpretation of the doubting woman story.
An illumination from the second quarter of the 15th century now in the collection of The British Library is a typical example. As Gregory kneels before the altar, the host has turned into the full body of Christ. The arma Christi also appear before the pope as Christ shows him his wounds.
Another manuscript illumination also dating from the second quarter of the 15th century shows a similar, yet slightly different image. Here Gregory is shown elevating the host while simultaneously seeing Christ appear above the altar.
Dating from circa 1480, another image shows a similar scene, yet here the blood of Christ pours into the chalice on the altar while an angel appears to support Christ from behind.
This image was popular in other art forms, as well, as seen in this painting from Spain circa 1490. St Gregory does not elevate the host, yet grasps it tightly in his hands as he marvels at the wounded Christ that confidently stands before him on the altar.
There is even a very rare sculptural representation of the miracle, now in the collection of the Bode-Museum in Berlin.
That this image only became popular in the 15th century can be seen in an illumination in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Dating from circa 1300, this illumination also depicts Gregory performing the mass. Yet here, there is no Eucharistic miracle. This story had not yet become popular or propagated.
One final image of the Mass of St Gregory, however, is a much earlier example (perhaps the earliest) and related directly to the debate surrounding the Eucharist in the 12th and 13th centuries. Michael Heinlen has shown that a late twelfth-century illustration from Weingarten Abbey, now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, is perhaps the only surviving depiction of the original miracle story from St Gregory’s vita, that of the doubting woman. On the recto of a surviving leaf of an unknown manuscript is St Gregory writing at his desk. On the verso, St Gregory holds a host in his left hand while pointing with his right to a strange, rectangular object sitting on top of the chalice. On the very edge of this image is a woman, presumably about to receive the host in Gregory’s hand. The object on the chalice is the bloody finger of Christ (you can just make out a fingernail). Heinlen argues that this image was directly related to the Eucharistic dialectic of the times, as well as connected to a relic in Weingarten Abbey’s possession, that of the Holy Blood. As devotion to (and debate surrounding) the Eucharist increased throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, the Weingarten Abbey image used the miracle of St Gregory to reaffirm the importance of its relic. The finger rests upon the chalice, reinforcing the hotly contested idea that the bread and wine are the true body and blood of Christ, the doctrine of transubstantiation that would be universally accepted at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
Heinlen, Michael. “An Early Image of a Mass of St. Gregory and Devotion to the Holy Blood at Weingarten Abbey.” Gesta 37, no. 1 (1998): 55-62.
Rubin, Miri. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in late medieval culture. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Rudy, Kathryn M. Rubrics, Images and Indulgences in Late Medieval Netherlandish Manuscripts. Brill, 2016.