The Mass of St Gilles
Oil and egg tempera on oak, 62 x 46 cm
National Gallery, London
by Master of Saint Gilles (active around 1500 in France)
The painter, named after his
pictures in the National Gallery, must have been trained in the Netherlands but
worked in Paris at the turn of the fifteenth century. This panel was once part
of a larger altarpiece which it has not been possible to reconstruct, although
it must have included the Saint Gilles and the Hind shown nearby, and probably
two other paintings of similar size now in Washington, one depicting the lower
chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle, the other the square in front of Notre-Dame in
Paris. The scene painted here has been set before the high altar of the Abbey of
St-Denis near Paris, whose interior as it appeared around 1500 it documents with
great accuracy, although the miracle shown is said to have taken place in 719,
possibly in Orleans.
The story is told in the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century compilation of saints' lives. The Frankish King Charles Martel had committed a sin which he dared not confess. He asked Saint Gilles to pray for him. On the following Sunday, while Saint Gilles was celebrating Mass on behalf of the king, shown kneeling at a prie-dieu on the left, an angel placed a paper on the altar; on it was written the king's sin and a pardon obtained through the saint's prayers, conditional upon the king's repentance.
The gold gem-studded altarpiece in front of which Saint Gilles officiates was presented to the Abbey by King Charles the Bald (823-77); it is mentioned in an inventory of 1505 and remained in existence until the French Revolution. First used to decorate the front of the altar, it would have been moved to the back of the altar table in the thirteenth century, when a change in the liturgy made it desirable to provide a backdrop for the elevation of the host - the bread of the Eucharist - which we see Saint Gilles holding up for the king, and us, to adore. Above the altarpiece is a cross made by Saint Eloy, seventh-century Bishop of Noyon, goldsmith and patron of goldsmiths. The small reliquary at its foot contained a fragment of the True Cross. The copper angels holding candlesticks, and standing on brass pillars that support the green curtains around the altar, were also listed in the inventory of 1505.
Behind the altar we glimpse the gilt brass coffin of Saint Louis mounted on tall columns, constructed in 1398 and given to the Abbey by King Charles VI. On the right, half cut off at the edge of the picture, is the mid-thirteenth-century tomb of King Dagobert (died 639) which is still in situ, albeit heavily restored. Even the crown worn by Charles Martel may depict an actual object stored at St-Denis, the Sainte Couronne used to crown every king of France until it was destroyed in the late sixteenth century. We can be sure that the precious oriental carpet in front of the altar, the patterned textiles of altar front and vestments, the book bags and cushions, record real accessories. While many Netherlandish paintings give the appearance of truthfulness, it is extremely unusual in this period to firid such an accurate description of an actual site. It would be pleasing to think that the sharp-eyed ecclesiastic holding back the curtain behind the king was the anonymous Master of Saint Gilles, inviting our admiration as well as our prayers.