This altarpiece commemorates one of the most important events of the papacy of Pope Gregory XV (born Alessandro Ludovisi). It shows the Jesuits Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier being canonised (officially declared saints in the Roman Catholic Church). This occurred on 12 March 1622, the feast day of Saint Gregory the Great.
Regarded as one of the Doctors, or Fathers, of the Western Church, Gregory the Great was pope from 590 to 604. Here he is seated on an elevated throne between Saint Ignatius Loyola, Spanish founder of the Society of Jesus (or Jesuits), on the left and Saint Francis Xavier, the first great Jesuit missionary, on the right.
The painting was likely commissioned by the Ludovisi family after Gregory XV’s death in 1623 to honour his close connections with the Jesuit order. The Ludovisi were one of Bologna’s most distinguished families and early patrons of Guercino.
Regarded as one of the Doctors, or Fathers, of the Western Church, Gregory the Great was pope from 590 to 604. Here he is seated on an elevated throne between the two Jesuit saints, leafing through a large book on his lap, a sign of his wisdom and learning. Gregory has removed his glasses and gazes up at the white dove, suggesting divine inspiration from the Holy Ghost. At the bottom right a chubby putto plays with the papal tiara, or crown, while two putti at the top right mimic the pious poses of the figures below. At left a youthful angel plays the violin, a reference to Gregory’s renowned musical abilities.
Saint Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), Spanish founder of the Society of Jesus (or Jesuits), kneels to the left of the Pope. He holds a Jesuit Bible, recognisable by the ‘IHS’ symbol embossed on its cover. To the right is Saint Francis Xavier (1506–1552), the first great Jesuit missionary, holding a white lily and looking up at the Pope. Though the figures are densely packed into a shallow space, the artist has achieved a sense of depth by introducing a range of textures. Both Jesuit saints are dressed in the simple black habit of their monastic order, placing them in contrast with the Pope in his brocaded cope. The carved stone plinth on which the Pope is seated is partly in shadow, as is the ornate jewelled tiara near the base of the picture. The seated putto, with a swathe of fabric twisted around him, turns his face away from us. The arrangement of these various elements also contributes to the sense of depth and space.
Gregory the Great was the namesake of Gregory XV, who was pope from 1621 until his death two years later. Although the two Jesuit saints were canonised in 1622, the style of this picture suggests it was made three or four years later. Several characteristics align this painting with the work Guercino produced after his trip to Rome between 1621 and 1623, particularly the intensity of colour and the fine detail. The elaborate rendering of the sumptuous fabric worn by Saint Gregory the Great is typical of Guercino around this time, and is similar to the vestments worn by the high priest Simeon in The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (1623).
The painting was likely commissioned by the Ludovisi family – possibly by Pope Gregory XV’s nephew, Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi – in the years following Gregory XV’s death to honour his close connections with the Jesuit order. The Ludovisi were one of Bologna’s most distinguished families and early patrons of Guercino, who had worked for them since 1617. The family also supported the construction of a great church in Rome in honour of Saint Ignatius Loyola. This altarpiece was probably originally destined for that church or for one of the Jesuit buildings adjoining it, but was given away by the family in 1646.
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