Monday, October 30, 2006

S. Gregory the Great and His Parents SS. Gordian the Senator and Silvia of Rome. Matthew Alderman. Ink on vellum, begun January 2006 and set aside; completed October 2006.

In my family, we were always aware of S. Silvia, my mother's apparent patroness, but it took us a very long time to figure out who she was. Random hagiographic trolling on my part during grade school turned up a S. Sylvia who turned out to be the famous pilgrim Egeria under another name, and whose principal claim to fame besides her journals was her habit of taking cold baths. However, the feast-days didn't match, and eventually, completely by accident, I stumbled on St. Silvia of Rome (November 3, or 5, depending on who's doing the talking), and my saintless mother discovered she'd hit the sanctoral jackpot. You see, Silvia of Rome was Gregory the Great's mom.

The Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about the lady in question:

Mother of Pope St. Gregory the Great, born about 515 (525?); died about 592.

There is unfortunately no life of Silvia and a few scanty notices are all that is extant concerning her. Her native place is sometimes given as Sicily, sometimes as Rome. Apparently she was of as distinguished family as her husband, the Roman regionarius, Gordianus. She had, besides Gregory, a second son.

Silvia was noted for her great piety, and she gave her sons an excellent education. After the death of her husband she devoted herself entirely to religion in the "new cell by the gate of blessed Paul" (cella nova juxta portam beati Pauli). Gregory the Great had a mosaic portrait of his parents executed at the monastery of St. Andrew; it is minutely described by Johannes Diaconus (P.L., LXXV, 229-30). Silvia was portrayed sitting with the face, in which the wrinkles of age could not extinguish the beauty, in full view; the eyes were large and blue, and the expression was gracious and animated.

The veneration of St. Silvia is of early date. In the ninth century an oratory was erected over her former dwelling, near the Basilica of San Saba. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) inserted her name under 3 November in the Roman Martyrology. She is invoked by pregnant women for a safe delivery.
Gordianus and S. Gregory's two aunts Tarsilla and Emiliana are also venerated as saints, incidentally.

S. Silvia's cultus is sadly largely forgotten at present, but it does crop up in the oddest places--in a small chapel on the grounds of the the present-day San Gregorio Magno, now staffed by Missionaries of Charity, through two worn portraits of her and her husband in the little church of San Gregorio ai Muratori, and there is some evidence that a shingle-style church was built under her patronage at some point in the nineteenth century up in New England, though I don't know either the location or the details behind it.

Despite the comparative lack of data concerning the saint's life, there is nonetheless a very charming legend related of her, that proves that even the mother of a future pontiff is still a mother. At her hermitage, she used to tend a small plot of land; every day, perhaps to make sure her monastic son was getting his fill of healthy food, she'd send him a silver plate loaded with vegetables. One day, St. Gregory chanced upon a beggar, and having nothing to give, presented him with the platter. S. Silvia's reaction to this is not on record, but doubtlessly she kept on telling him to eat his broccoli.

This image was intended from the beginning as a gift for my mother, and is in a sense a set of variations on the same themes I explored in another portrait of S. Gregory.

S. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome dealt with the Western Church's relationship with the East, while S. Gregory the Great and His Parents is about the emergence of an adult Christianity from the late antique world, and about the continuing Romanitas of that faith. S. Gordianus and S. Silvia had been Christians from birth, not converts, and like virtually everyone else in their day they came from families long familiar with Catholicism.

No more potent a symbol is that of Gordianus himself--the Roman senator who taught his son how to be a good Catholic. We see him here, dressed with conscious anachronism in the official toga of the high classical age when perhaps his robes might have been something more stiff and orientally Byzantine, and in him we behold the still-vibrant memory of that civilization carried cautiously, carefully, gratefully, like a flame shielded in a cupped hand against the wind by the Church who had essentially been a sign of contradiction to its pagan antecedents.

Gordianus and Silvia made sure their sons were provided with the best fragments of classical erudition that they had to give, and also taught them the Faith that took those scraps of knowledge and revivified them with the sense of meaning that had so eluded the drifting cultic seekers of the late pagan Empire as they floated from Eleusinian mystery to Mithraic rite, and finally to the strange liturgies of an Eastern religion that followed the teachings of someone they called Christ.

Gordianus and Silvia, as was sometimes the practice in those days, separated to become priest and nun after their children grew up, and while perhaps not advisable to present-day couples, this act has a certain symbolic potency in this image of transition and transmutation that reminds us of the Romanness of Catholicism that carries within it the baptized distillation of everything good that existed within the pagan, pre-Christian universe, and which, like the Sibyls, paved the way for Christ's coming into the world in the age of Augustus when the whole world was at peace. He is the corporeal father who gives life to a spiritual father, whose spiritual son he is, and who becomes one himself through his own priesthood as the hierarchy of civil pomp is supplanted by one of spiritual self-abasement and humility.

Silvia is shown here, as the accounts tell us, a beautiful matron, and imagined here in her bustling, industrious, maternal pre-anchorite phase, very much the woman of the house with her purse and keys at her belt, though perhaps they prefigure as well the keys that her son would bind and loose heaven and earth with, and the gold and silver of his charity that she instilled within him. She is both powerful and domestic, the mistress of six villas, a woman of means and intelligence in an age when the job description of aristocratic housewife meant being a businesswoman, schoolmistress, agriculturalist and, in the worst times, the local civil defense warden against the Huns.

Her costume is simple and beautiful, perhaps less self-consciously archaic than her husband's, and in a sense brings her more into the world of St. Gregory and the Middle Ages, the age of meditation and practical mysticism personified by her vegetable platter and her prayer-beads--also perhaps slightly anachronistic, and once again deliberately so. She becomes the image of Mother Church that her son protects and, to draw out a Trinitarian and Marian analogy, the Church from which is born from as his Mother, and who he himself is father to through his reforms, writings and pastoral leadership.

This is an image about family, and the passage of leadership from one generation to the next, and the indelible impact of parenthood reaching backwards and forwards from history to the future. S. Gregory produced reams of scholarship, the ageless and undying repertoire of the Church's chant, and an example of heroic virtue that will never be forgotten. S. Silvia and S. Gordian, on the other hand, produced Gregory himself. Whose, one may rightly ask, was the greater achievement?

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