Pope Gregory the Great, a scion of a Roman senatorial family, was born around 540. He was Prefect of Rome in 572-573 but then resigned his office and retreated to his paternal roof on Mount Coelio, where he founded a monastery named after Saint Andrew. He was ordained deacon by Pope Pelagius II and was sent by him as ambassador to Constantinople, where he became the ranking intermediary between the Eastern and Western Churches. He was Pope from 590 until his death in 604 and is considered one of the four great Fathers of the Western Church alongside Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine.
His economic and ecclesiastic policies served to strengthen the Papacy and during the Middle Ages increased the temporal and political power of the popes. His name is linked with the formulation of the canon of the mass and with the creation of the missal. He was interested in reforming church music and the so-called Gregorian chants originate from this time.
Saint Gregory the Great is known as the last Roman and first medieval Pope. The most frequently depicted event of his life is his celebration of the mass in the church of Santa Croce de Gerusalemme in Rome. During this mass Christ appeared above the altar, pointing to His stigmata suffered on the cross, while his blood dripped into the chalice. The instruments of His suffering are generously illustrated around the figure of Christ.
In the Budapest painting Saint Gregory is depicted - similarly to the earliest portrayals made of him - with a full tonsure. It became customary from the end of the 14th century, particularly in his pictures, to paint the triple papal crown, the tiara, which in this picture is held by a bishop on the right. The Pope is dressed in an alb and pluvial.
At the altar Saint Gregory holds the host decorated with the Golgotha crucifix. The hem of the garments, the neck of the shirts, the papal halo and the cross on the pluvial are covered with gold and decorated with stippled ornamentation. In his depiction of costly materials the master frequently used gold and silver. The baldachin above the altar is covered by stippled leaf ornamentation on a silver-leaf base. The space is rich in details. In front of the ashlar wall there are red marble columns and in the forefront a coloured maiolica floor can be seen.
The painter of the Budapest painting was a follower of Pedro Berruguete, one of the greatest figures of the Spanish Renaissance. He may have known this master who was active in Urbino around 1477. The immediate model of this painting is the Berruguete painting of the Mass of Saint Gregory the Great, dated to around 1500 and preserved in the Cathedral of Segovia together with another Berruguete altar with the same theme. (Burgos, Museo Provincial). The characters in this latter painting are the models for the deacons in the Budapest panel. The artist of the Budapest painting, the Master of Portillo, painted his faces in a summary fashion. He seems to have drawn the expressive eyes shining with devotion and the strongly bowed mouths with a single stroke onto the sketchily structured faces. Post attributed a predella, also showing the Mass of Saint Gregory in the company of two saints (Bordeaux, Sacristy of the Cathedral), to the Master of Portillo, who was active in the region of Valladolid and Avila. In its conception and the sketchy depiction of materials and ornamentation this work is close to the Budapest painting but a similar type appears also in two other items of the master's oeuvre: on the main altar of the Real Monasterio de Santa Clara in Tordesillas and on another altarpiece depicting the life of Saint Claire and Saint Francis.
At the turn of the 16th century and during its first quarter numerous Spanish painters depicted this scene, which was a favourite at that time. One of them was named after the choice of its subject as the Maestro de la Misa de San Gregorio (Museo Provincial, Segovia) but the painter of the Budapest picture is also quite close to the Maestro de Martin Miguel of Segovia.
Text: © Éva Nyerges