Wednesday, February 01, 2006

St. Gregory the Great, Pope and Patriarch of the West. Matthew Alderman, ink on paper, 11 x 17 inches, January 2006. Click here for larger image.

As with most of my other ink works, this project was partially 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 here shown 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 which 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 the papacy of Benedict XVI and his search for unity with the East through references to our shared heritage with the Orthodox, and the role that the Papacy has played in guarding those 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. Some deliberate anachronism is evident in the depiction of the fanon covering the Pope's shoulders, a reference to the historical continuity of the pontificates of Gregory I and Benedict XVI with that great intervening stretch of popes that separates them in time, many of whom wore this quintessentially medieval and baroque garment.

Another deliberate anachronism is seen in the figure of the acolyte bearing the Pope's mitre. Mitres are known to have been worn as early as about a hundred years after Gregory's time, and originated, like the pallium, as a distinctive non-liturgical piece of papal regalia known as the camelaucum. Its appearance here makes reference to both 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.

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 also 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 to subtly link past, present and future.

Gregory's posture is a fairly literal quotation of Ingres's 1806 Portrait of Napoléon 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 has aped both the poses of a Byzantine Christ in Majesty and a pagan Jupiter in Ingres's depiction. Christ's pose on the gospel book he 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 the already venerable--institution that Gregory occupied. His face suggests the survival of strength and virility in the face of age, and is inspired by the Dürer depiction of the Old Testament strongman Sampson and also those same images of Jove that Ingres would have known from casts and engravings, and which might have peeped out of the mud and moss, forgotten in the Forum, in the days of St. Gregory, and the days 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, be baptized and turned to the good of the new Faith. We see here a true Pontifex--bridge-builder--uniting east and west, new and old, antique and modern, a mirror of prudence and justice for our age and all ages to come.

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