This finely-painted work depicts a scene from the life of Saint Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), considered one of the four Latin Fathers of the Church, pope from 3 September 590. According to the legend, once
while serving a Mass, Saint Gregory became aware that a member of the
congregation had doubted the truth of the miraculous
transsubstantiation of the Host, by which it becomes the body of
Christ to be shared in Communion. Raising his eyes to the altar in
rising from the altar as from a sarcophagus and displaying the wounds
and instruments of the Passion.
Here the artist has given free reign to his imagining of the visionary moment, depicting Saint Gregory's epiphany as a dynamic whirlwind, in
which angels, weapons, episodes and characters from the Biblical
narrative - Pontius Pilate and his wife, Judas with the bag of silver, Caiaphas the High Priest, the Cock that crowed thrice - float in
mid-air, displaced and disembodied. Like tell-tale pictograms, they
recall, in no particular order, the turmoil and tribulation of the
climactic sequence of events in the New Testament, which the Mass is
meant to evoke and recount. Juxtaposed against the chaos of the
swirling clouds, full of the symbols of the violence and perfidy of the Passion, Christ's face is painted with an expression of serenity and
The subject was an oft-repeated one in the decades of the Reformation, when it became a symbol of the enduring validity of the Doctrine of
Transsubstantiation. Known from a print by Dürer (B. 123 (142), dated 1511), it was an image that was well-disseminated and would have been
widely known and understood. In a striking typological alignment of the Biblical past with the historical present, the artist depicts Pontius
Pilate with features resembling those of contemporary German leaders,
while Caiaphas is given the mitre of a Christian bishop.
We are grateful to Dr Werner Schade for confirming the attribution of this work on the basis of photographs. This picture was first given to the Master by Friedländer and Rosenberg in 1932, together with a number of versions of the subject including two in Aschaffenburg, Staatsgemäldesammlung. One of these (Friedländer and Rosenberg 1978, SUP 12) is strikingly close to the present picture,
with a directly analogous composition (which is also indebted to the
Dürer print). Both of the Ascaffenburg pictures would seem to have
been painted for the Master's chief patron, Cardinal Albrecht of
Brandenburg. The Master may have worked in the Cranach studio and
was placed at the Cardinal's disposal for the creation of large
altarpieces for the collegiate church in Halle built in 1518. Of the
twelve portraits given to the Master, there are at least three of the
Cardinal, including those in the Landesmuseum, Mainz and the Stiftung
Preussische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg as well as a
Portrait of Dr. Heinrich Stromer (see M.J. Friedländer and J.
Rosenberg, Cranach, London, 1978, p. 162, sup. 16) who was the medical attendant to the Cardinal between 1516 and 1520. Mr Ludwig Meyer of the Archiv für unstgeschichte has proposed an attribution to a painter in the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, noting that the author of the present work must have been 'one of Cranach's best collaborators'.
While it is possible that the figure of the bishop holding the
three-tiered papal tiara at the extreme right may also be intended as a depiction of Cardinal Albrecht, the commission must have come from the donor figure shown kneeling at the lower left. We are grateful to Mr
Jan van Helmont for identifying this donor's arms as those of the
Venediger and Remees families.