An Altarpiece with St Gregory and saints
(Matteo Rosselli)



Saint Gregory the Great, enthroned beneath a ciborium with Saints Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome, Saint Thomas Aquinas and an unidentified cardinal saint behind

We are very grateful to Giovanni Pagliarulo for drawing our attention to a large red chalk study by Matteo Rosselli in the Uffizi – clearly preparatory for the figure of Saint Jerome in the right foreground – which confirms our attribution to Rosselli.

This unpublished early altarpiece is an important addition to Rosselli’s oeuvre, and depicts Saint Gregory the Great, in full pontifical robes and tiara, holding a book of the Gospel on his lap and raising his right hand in blessing. The dove hovering by his ear is his traditional attribute and refers to the legendary episode, wherein, Gregory – who was in the habit of dictating his homilies to a scribe seated behind a curtain – one day paused so long in his dictation, that the scribe became curious, made a hole in the curtain, and looking through, saw the Holy Spirit whispering to Gregory. In the left foreground, Saint Ambrose sits contemplating a codex, while on the right, Saint Jerome sits turned to Saint Augustine, who gestures to the monstrance held by seraphim above the pope’s head. Saints Cosmas and Damian stand behind the four church doctors and gesture towards Saint Gregory, while displaying a codex inscribed with the antiphon to the Eucharist. The monstrance and the inclusion of this antiphon indicate that the altarpiece was commissioned for a Eucharistic chapel, and therefore probably for a monastery or confraternity, since such chapels were meant for continual veneration. Because the chant is presented by the patron saints of medicine and healing, it is possible that the altarpiece was commissioned in gratitude for a deliverance from plague. It is also notable that Rosselli painted these saints in a flat, somewhat didactic style, which is distinct from the rest of the picture, with its focus on colour, texture, facial expression, and anecdotal detail (the dove whispering in Saint Gregory’s ear, the debate between the other two church fathers, Saint Ambrose’s absorption in the scriptures, the seraphim’s quiet awe, etc.). In fact, the twin saints are the only asymmetrical element in Rosselli’s composition, and because they somewhat recall similar interpretations of these Medici patron saints painted by Fra Angelico in San Marco, it is tempting to read their inclusion here as a possible reference to a Granducal patron. Until more evidence emerges regarding the work’s original provenance however, it would be more prudent to interpret the work simply as a Eucharistic altarpiece, possibly for a Dominican church or confraternity.

Stylistically, the altarpiece is typical of Rosselli’s early known works which remain very much informed by those of his master Gregorio Pagani, and probably dates to 1605-1607, around the same time that Rosselli completed some of Pagani’s unfinished compositions after his death in 1605. The lavish attention to detail in the draperies, particularly the pleated linens worn by Saints Ambrose and Jerome, and the gold embroidery on Saint Gregory’s cope, the correggesque echoes in the seraphim, and the overall clarity and classical sense of balance in the composition – a reflection of Rosselli’s initial debt to Andrea del Sarto, whose frescoes he copied in the Chiostro dello Scalzo – are all typical of Rosselli’s early period. Such works include the Madonna and Child with Saint Francis (1605) in Santa Maria Maggiore, Florence, and the Adoration of the Magi in the Sant’Andrea a Cennano in Montevarchi (1607). In these two early works Rosselli imitated the increased fascination with naturalism and exactness of detail in Pagani displayed in his late works, as well as the possible influence of Spanish art on Pagani’s work via his friendship with Bartolomeo Carducho. Similar works from Pagani’s final phase are his Saint Lawrence (1600; San Giovanni Val d’Arno, Basilica S. Maria delle Grazie), his Adoration of the Magi (1603; Florence, S. Maria del Carmine), and his Tobias Restoring the Sight of his Father (1604; Florence, Palazzo Pitti).

266 x 167 cm (104 ¾ x 65 ¾ in)
Oil on canvas

Private collection, Sweden

Historical Period
Mannerism & Cinquecento - 1530-1600 & Baroque - 1600-1720
Religious: New Testament
Italian - Tuscan
Price band
$350,000 - $500,000