Montessuy was a student of Pierre Révoil, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Louis Hersent, in succession, but a slow convalescence from wounds suffered during the Revolution of 1830 temporarily sidelined his painterly ambitions. He finally struck out for Rome in April 1836, eventually discovering the hill town of Subiaco. What began in the 1780s as a slow trickle of French painters drawn there for its picturesque terrain grew steadily in the first decades of the nineteenth century, when artists discovered its frescoes and its people. The setting of this painting is the monastery of San Benedetto, which was constructed in the thirteenth century around the cave in which Benedict lived for three years about 500 A.D. The Sacro Speco, as the chapel installed in the living rock of the cave is known, is just behind the door through which the reigning pontiff, Gregory XVI, emerges into the richly decorated anteroom.
If Montessuy made it to Subiaco by October 22, 1836, he could have seen the oil study depicting the same interior by the Dane Martinus Rørbye, who on that day showed it to fellow artists there; otherwise he may have seen it on one of the following days in Rome (the finished painting, dated 1843, is in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; Rørbye’s diary is in the Statens Museum’s library). It appears that in taking a recent historical event as a pretext for this picturesque costume piece—Gregory worshiped at San Benedetto on April 30, 1834, fully two years before Montessuy left for Italy—the artist relied on eyewitness accounts. According to Montessuy’s hagiographer Aimé Vingtrinier, the subject of this painting is represented factually ("tout d’actualité"); it was painted mostly in Subiaco and finished in Rome, where it made the artist’s reputation before being sent to France for exhibition (see Vingtrinier 1883).
Gregory’s visit is described in detail in the monastery’s chronicle, Libro delle Memorie dal 1831 al 1850 (housed in the library of its sister institution, Santa Scolastica): ". . . After a brief rest in the Abbot’s Apartment, where he picked up the mozzetta [short cape] and the Pontifical stole, the H[oly] Father entered the Superior Church, whence, having venerated the Most Blessed Sacrament, he descended to the Sacred Cave to celebrate the Holy Mass, assisted by the R[eve]r[end] F[athers] Abbots Bini and Piacenti." It also describes the indelible impression the event made on area peasants: "While the H[oly] Father ascended the steep slopes, the Municipal Administrators of Jenne were expressing their jubilation with the continuous firing of mortars, and at the same time the village people, as well as others from nearby villages, men and women spread out around the tortuous turns of that road, paid him homage with their acclamations, giving him unequivocal demonstrations of their tender devotion, to which his Sanctity responded with the most endearing gestures of his benevolent nature, listening to the supplications of many, and permitting to all the kissing of the Foot." Some of his information may have been related to Montessuy by a certain Fra Vicenzo, who on April 21, 1837, told the painter Hippolyte Flandrin that he had posed for all the paintings François-Marius Granet had made at Subiaco many years before. ("Journal d’Hippolyte Flandrin, janvier 1833–juillet 1838: Séjour en Italie," in Marthe Flandrin and Madeline Froidevaux-Flandrin, Les Frères Flandrin, trois jeunes peintres aux XIXe siècle, Olonne sur Mer, 1984, p. 102 [April 21, 1837]; he must have posed for Granet’s 1818 painting of this interior, now in the Musée de Dreux).
This, Montessuy’s first masterpiece in a vein that he would pursue for the remainder of his career, was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1844 and at the Société des Amis des Arts, Lyons, in 1844–45, where it was acquired by Lidie Pavy. It remained essentially unseen until it was acquired by the Museum in 2003. There is no more complete expression of the Lyonnais penchant for surface description than this picture. (Lyons was a center of textile and wallcovering production in the nineteenth century.)
[Asher Ethan Miller 2013. The following persons are gratefully acknowledged for their contributions to the cataloguing of this painting: Gérard Bruyère, Don Romano di Cosmo, Andy Julo, Kasper Monrad, Rosemarie Pinotti, Father Francisco Schulte, Daniel Ternois.]