This exquisite, jewel-like panel is a rare and well-preserved example of early 15th century painting from León, an important city in northwest Spain, then part of the powerful Kingdom of Castile. León was the seat of an active artistic centre, which formulated its own, sophisticated version of the International Gothic Style then spreading throughout Europe, blending Italianate elements with naturalistic details, betraying the influence of early Netherlandish painting.
The foremost exponent of that style, Nicolás Francés is documented as early as 1434 as having painted the ‘Retablo Mayor’, a monumental altarpiece for the main altar of the Cathedral of León, which was dismantled in 1740 though some panels are still visible in the cathedral today. Francés’s name strongly suggests he was of French origin, and his refined style is indeed reminiscent of the courtly art developed in Paris and Burgundy in the early 15th century (compare for instance the precious tondo of The Virgin and Child on the Crescent Moon, circa 1410-20; Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum). That a foreigner would be entrusted with such a prestigious commission as the León cathedral altarpiece is testament to his importance and reputation at the time, and while he remained on the cathedral’s payroll for most of his life, he also attracted the patronage of such prestigious individuals as Fernando López Saldaña, treasurer to King John II of Castile, for whom he painted a triptych showing scenes from the Life of the Virgin intended for his private chapel in the convent of Santa Clara de Tordesillas in Valladolid. Another altarpiece, dedicated to the Lives of the Virgin and Saint Francis, is now at the Prado in Madrid (these two latter works being undisputedly attributed to the artist by P.J. Sánchez Cantón in Maestro Nicolás Francés, Madrid, 1964, on stylistic grounds).
The attribution of the present panel to Francés derives from its undeniable similarity to another work of the same subject by the master, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (R.C. Post, A History of Spanish Painting, Cambridge, MA, 1947, IX, 2, pp. 788-9). Slightly larger, the Boston panel shows an identical composition, spatial arrangement and figure types as this work. Both pictures highlight the artist’s miniaturist handling and his astonishing skill at rendering small details, features that are explained by the fact that Francés was also active as a manuscript illuminator and, as such, used to operate on a minute scale. Finally, in both paintings, the artist brilliantly exploits the decorative potential of the gold background thanks to delicate punchwork: through incised dots, he creates a leaf motif, whose elegant arabesques evoke the most elaborate metalwork of the period.
The Mass of Saint Gregory commemorates a miracle that took place during a service performed by Pope Gregory in the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, when one of the celebrants, at the moment of the consecration, doubted the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. Then, miraculously, Christ, as the Man of Sorrows, surrounded by the Arma Christi, or the instruments of his Passion, appeared on the altar, thus confirming the sacredness of the Eucharistic re-enactment. In the late 14th century, an indulgence – that is the reduction of one’s time in Purgatory – was granted by the pope to whomever would worship an image depicting the vision of Saint Gregory. This in turn fuelled an incredible surge in this iconography, a popularity to which this panel and its Boston counterpart testify.
In this work, the startled Gregory, cloaked in a rich cloth-of-gold brocaded chasuble, his papal mitre resting on the altar along with various liturgical objects – chalice, host, book and candles – looks up to the figure of Christ, emerging from his tomb and showing his wounds. Christ is surrounded by the objects of his ordeal, from left to right: the reed with the sponge dipped in vinegar; the three dice with which the soldiers played for Christ’s robe; the cross, from which the scourges of the Flagellation hang; the ladder of the Deposition; Veronica’s Veil bearing the Holy Face; the hand which pulled Christ’s hair during the Mocking; the column of the Flagellation, on which the cockerel of Peter’s denial stands; the hammer that pegged the nails through Christ’s body onto the cross; and finally, the lance that pierced his side.
In a clever spatial arrangement that defies mathematical perspective, Francés deploys this wide array of Arma Christi in a symbolic, resolutely non-narrative way, so that they almost become hieroglyphs meant to remind the viewer of each single step of the Passion, and thus foster his devotion. This type of imagery is in line with the new devotional practices emerging at the time, which emphasised compassion for Christ’s suffering. The influential writings of Ludolph of Saxony (d. 1378) and Saint Bonaventura encouraged the worshipper to mentally re-enact the Passion and identify with the suffering of the Saviour.
Post suggested that the Boston Mass of Saint Gregory could have belonged to the predella of one of Francés now-dispersed polyptychs, and the same could apply to the present work; its stylistic consistency with the altarpiece of the León cathedral suggesting it could indeed have been part of that prestigious ensemble. However, the painting’s integral frame, vertical wood grain, as well as its intimate, portable format and myriad details, point to its having been an object made to be examined and worshipped at close range. It is therefore possible that the panel would have functioned as a picture intended for private contemplation.