|Pope St. Gregory the Great flanked by his parents, Gordianus and St. Silvia.|
Today, September 3, is the feast of Pope Saint Gregory the Great on the modern calendar. This great pope who is simultaneously considered the last Father of the ancient Church and the first of the medieval Church, has featured frequently on this blog (see his rebuke of the bishops of Dalmatia and his ponderings on Purgatory, in particular). I had not previously looked into Gregory’s early life, however, and falling as it does in the mid-6th century which is right in my wheel-house, I figured I would do a little research.
Flipping through this work, I immediately discovered the image above of Gregory on the frontispiece flanked by his parents, Gordianus and Silvia. This 17th century engraving was originally published as part of the Ecclesiastical Annals of Baronius. It is drawn from two ancient paintings of Gregory's parents that he caused to be set up in Monastery of Saint Andrew in Rome which was founded on the site of his hereditary estate on the Caelian hill. The site of this monastery is today occupied by the Church of San Gregorio Magno al Celio.
Dudden provides the sparse information that we have about Gregory’s parents:
Gregory’s father bore the Imperial name of Gordianus. He is styled “Regionarius,” but what his office was is far from clear…Of Gordianus and his work we know practically nothing. We gather from the “Lives” that he was wealthy, the owner of large estates in Sicily, and of a stately mansion on the Caelian Hill in Rome…Of Gregory’s mother, Silvia, we have again but scanty information. Like her husband, she appears to have been of good family, and in later life she became famous for ascetic piety. After the death of Gordianus she embraced a life of seclusion and went into retreat at a place called Cella Nova, close by the great door of the Basilica of St. Paul. Here, in after ages, stood an oratory dedicated to the blessed Silvia; and the patrician lady herself is still commemorated as a saint on the third of November.
Dudden then remarks on the aforementioned portraits as they were described by John the Deacon:
Through a fortunate circumstance we are able to form a tolerable notion of the outward appearance of the Regionary and his wife, for Gregory had the pair painted in the atrium of St Andrew's Monastery, and three hundred years later the portraits were inspected by John the Deacon, whose interesting description of them is still extant. In the first painting the Apostle Peter was represented sitting, with his right hand clasping the hand of Gordianus, who was standing near. The Regionary was clad in a chestnut-colored planeta or chasuble, over a dalmatic, and wore shoes. He was a tall man, with a long face, light eyes, a short beard, busby hair, and a grave expression of countenance.
The second picture showed Silvia seated, robed in white — a lady of full height, with a round, fair face, wrinkled with age, yet still bearing traces of great beauty. Her eyes were large and blue, with delicate eyebrows, her lips were well-formed, her expression cheerful. With two fingers of her right hand she was in the act of making the sign of the cross. In her left was a Psalter, on the open page of which was inscribed with the verse, “Let my soul live, and it shall praise Thee; and let Thy judgments help me.”
Of Gregory’s sole sibling, Dudden says the following:
John's description leaves us with a pleasant impression of Gregory's parents, and the word-sketch of the aged mother has a special charm. But the whole account is valuable inasmuch as it helps us to understand some of the characteristics of Gregory's mind and character. For it cannot be doubted that Gregory inherited certain traits from each of the parents whose portraits he had painted in St Andrew's. Some physical resemblances to each are noticed by John. And it is not to be questioned that many also of Gregory's moral and intellectual peculiarities may be accounted for by means of the principle of heredity. From his mother he doubtless derived his almost feminine tenderness and power of sympathy, his innate bent toward asceticism, his religious mysticism, his self-sacrificing, self-effacing disposition. From his father, no less certainly, he inherited his administrative capacity, his legal acumen, his unswerving love of justice, and that inexorable severity towards hardened offenders which caused him to be feared, in some degree, even by those who loved him best. Thus the nature of the parents is reproduced in the offspring, and in the transactions of Gregory’s life we are again and again reminded, now of the grave-faced man of business and administrator of the Region, now of the loveable, ascetic woman who crosses herself as she ponders over the psalter.
Full image of St. Gregory and his
parents from Dudden's frontispiece.
Click to enlarge.
Gordianus and Silvia had two sons; one they called Gregory—the watchful…while of the other we have no record. That he existed is proved by two passages in Pope Gregory’s correspondence. But we know nothing about him, not even his name.It seems that the mansion of Gordianus still exists beneath the foundations of San Gregorio Magno al Celio, and Dudden offers the following tantalizing glimpse into this portal to the ancient Church:
In the present day, the palace of Gordianus is no longer visible. Centuries have raised the level of the soil, and the church and monastery of San Gregoria, which occupy the site, are entirely modern. In 1890, however, a search of the cellars of the monastery revealed the fact that deep beneath the modern buildings the old house still exists in a marvelous state of preservation, and might easily be excavated without impairing the stability of the church above. Unfortunately, the projected excavation has not been carried out.Based on a brief web search, no later excavations were undertaken and the marvelously preserved boyhood home of Saint Gregory the Great remains to be discovered by future generations.
- Saint Maurus Walks on Water ~ As told by Pope Saint Gregory the Great
- The Curious Tale of Florentius and the Bear ~ early 6th Century Italy
- "The blessed pope John, worn by illness, gave up the ghost and died in prison" ~ Pope Saint John I, a political martyr of the 6th century AD
- When Saint Benedict met Totila, King of the Goths
- "The fire marvelous strangely turned back" ~ Saint Marcellinus of Ancona
- "Now, leave if you can" ~ Saint Scholastica and her brother, Saint Benedict
- "Cut off a thong of his skin" ~ The martyrdom of Saint Herculanus AD 549