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Master of Saint Giles, 'The Mass of Saint Giles', about 1500

Key facts
Full title The Mass of Saint Giles
Artist Master of Saint Giles
Artist dates active about 1500
Series Two Panels from an Altarpiece
Date made about 1500
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 62.3 × 46 cm
Acquisition credit Presented by the Art Fund, 1933
Inventory number NG4681
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Previous owners
The Mass of Saint Giles
Master of Saint Giles

This panel is one of four surviving fragments of a large altarpiece that showed the lives of various French saints, many with royal connections. Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, kneels beside an altar at which a priest is performing Mass. At the top an angel flies down from heaven with a divine proclamation.

This is one of the legends of Saint Giles, a popular French saint. Charlemagne had committed a sin so awful he was unable to confess it. While visiting him, Saint Giles celebrated mass and prayed for him. An angel appeared bearing a letter; it explained that because of Giles’s prayer, the sin was forgiven.

The church in the painting is based on a real one: the royal mausoleum of Saint Denis in Paris. This is the only surviving view of it as it was in the late Middle Ages, albeit somewhat simplified.

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Two Panels from an Altarpiece


These two panels show episodes from the life of Saint Giles, a seventh-century hermit who was enormously popular in medieval France. They once formed part of the folding wings of a large polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece). Two more of its panels are in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

When the altarpiece was open it showed scenes from lives of several saints, many with French royal connections, set in Paris churches. On the back were saints painted in tones of grey to look like statues.

We don't know exactly how the panels were originally arranged or where the altarpiece was originally located, or even who the artist was. However, he was probably working in Paris in around 1500, as in these paintings, the clothes worn by the laity (people who are not church officials) were in fashion in the first years of the sixteenth century.