Pope Gregory the Great (?) and St. Mathias, 1428-29, Tempera and Oil on Wood, Masolino (Masolino da Panicale), A.D. 1383-1447

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post B Easter 7, Art for May 20,2012

In the Book of Acts (1:23-26) we have an account of the disciples selecting Mathias by lot to replace Judas but no further information is provided in the New Testament. As often occurs, when facts are not available, the imagination and stories fill the void. Like the popular movie genre of the 1950s in which story lines were built around hypothetical events in the lives of Biblical figures, the accounts of Mathias’ life are not based on direct knowledge. Little is actually known about him.

According to tradition, the Apostle Mathias travelled extensively throughout the Near East, Africa, and Asia Minor. Sometimes he travelled with other apostles. He preached at various times in Judea, Jerusalem, Colchis, Syria, Ethiopia, and Macedonia. He was martyred by several means and buried in several places. He was speared to death in Southern Asia. He was stoned and then beheaded in Jerusalem – also, in Jerusalem, he died of old age and was buried there; He was crucified and buried in Colchis (modern day Georgia); In Syria he was burned to death. He died in Sebastoplis (modern day Sudan) and was buried there as well. There is yet another burial place. Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, took what she believed were the remains of Mathias to Germany and they are now interred at the abbey of St. Mathias, Trier.

In music, a leitmotif – a recurring theme – is associated with a particular person or idea. Sometimes an instrument is used to identify a character, such as an oboe to represent the duck in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. In similar manner, identifying themes are used in art. A figure of a bearded man in a painting could represent almost any apostle but with an appropriate prop it could be interpreted as a specific person. Just as we associate a man in a white coat and stethoscope as a doctor or a man with a collar worn backwards as a priest, apostles in paintings were identified by objects associated with their lives. Sometimes Mathias is shown with a spear because one tradition has it he was killed with a lance in Asia Minor. He also is represented with a book or scroll to indicate he was an interpreter of judgments and prophecies. The object most often pictured with Mathias, however, is an axe or some version of it such as a battle axe, halberd or hatchet. The axe is associated with the tradition that he was martyred by being beheaded.

In art, a painter is not required to adhere to time. Just as people and events of different places and time periods, even hundreds of years apart, can exist simultaneously in our minds; in a painting they may exist also in a time realm that is separate from reality. Thus you will see a triptych with the donors standing in the wings looking across the ages and observing a scene of the nativity. Or, as we see in Masolino’s painting, a first century man, Mathias, conversing with a sixth century pope (believed to be Gregory the Great). It may be assumed they are meeting in heaven. It is not clear why Masolino brought these two men together. Perhaps it was because Mathias carried the gospel to non-believers, and Pope Gregory re-energized the missionary work of the Church. The pope made it a priority to evangelize the non-Christians among the Anglo-Saxons in England.

In its original form, the painting of Pope Gregory and St. Mathias (now at the National Gallery in London) was part of a polyptych, a multi-paneled painting. The painter, Masaccio, was called to Rome to work on this altarpiece for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore but completed only one panel before he died. The remaining panels, including The Pope and St. Mathias, were painted by Masolino. This polyptych is no longer in its original form. It has been disassembled and the panels are exhibited separately.

© 2012 Hovak Najarian

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