The Life of St Augustine and his Representation in Art

Saint Augustine (in Latin, Augustinus), bishop of Hippo in Roman Africa from 396 to 430 and the dominant personality of the Western Church of his time, is generally recognized as having been the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity.

Life and Legend

The life of Augustine of Hippo is known above all through his Confessions, which cover the period up to the death of his mother, St Monica, in 387 AD. Born in Tagaste (close to Hippo, near present-day Annaba, in Algeria) on 13 November 354, he went to Milan in 382 to take up a chair in rhetoric. There he met St Ambrose. In 386, at Milan, he was converted. Lying one day under a fig tree in his garden, he heard a child's voice say to him: "Tolle, lege [Take, read]". Randomly opening a copy of the epistles of St Paul he had with him, his eyes fell on Rom. 13:13-14: "Let us walk ... not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness ... But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ." After his preparation, he was baptised by St Ambrose himself on Easter night, 387, with his son Adeodatus, and his friend Alypius. His mother, Monica, joined him on most of his travels and died at Ostia on the return journey from Africa. Augustine returned alone, became a priest in 391 and Bishop of Hippo in 395, and shared in the monastic life of his clerical community. He died in 430 at Hippo, having composed the City of God during the siege of the city by the Vandals. He is the patron of theologians and printers.

Representation and Iconography

In the oldest surviving depictions, dating from the fifth and sixth centuries, Augustine has no specific attribute and no nimbus. Later he was portrayed in episcopal dress, with mitre, crozier and various other accoutrements. Several orders regular claim him as their founder - for example, the Austins or Regular Canons of St Augustine, who can be distinguished from Franciscans by their leather belts, and the Premonstratensians. St Augustine is often represented as an Augustinian friar with a black frock and leather belt.

Two types of depiction predominate. He can be shown as an author with his secretary, dictating under the influence of the dove of the Holy Spirit or an angel. This type appears above all in the manuscripts of his works illustrated with his life. He is also shown on a professorial chair teaching his students, who sit around him (manuscript miniature of the City of God, early twelfth century, Canterbury Library). Augustine is occasionally depicted arguing with certain anonymous or identifiable heretics (Faustus, for example, in miniatures from the end of the eleventh century). He can also be shown as a bishop, standing or seated on the cathedra (mosaics in the Cathedral of Cefalù, Sicily, fifteenth century; frescoes, in the cloister of Nonnberg, Salzburg, twelfth century). From the fourteenth century, artists combined depictions of St Augustine with those of the three other Doctors of the Church, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory (Michael Pacher, Kirchenvateraltar, before 1483, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, where each occupies a niche). They can also be combined in hagiographical terms (Carpaccio, St Augustine's vision of St Jerome, 1502-7, Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice, where the same artist's St Augustine in his Studiolo can also be found). The spread of the Augustinian Order to Spain (Jaime Huguet, The Consecration of St Augustine, late fifteenth century, Museu de Arte Antica de Catalunya, Barcelona) and to the Low Countries encouraged the development of Augustine's iconography. After the Reformation, Augustine as the defender of orthodoxy against heresy was the preferred type (Hendrick Verbruggen, pulpit, Augustinian church, Antwerp, seventeenth century; Bartolomeo Altomonte, Herzogenburg Abbey Church, Austria, 1753-64, where the saint is shown holding a pen from which bolts of lightning shoot out; C. Coello, Triumph of St Augustine, 1664, Madrid, Prado, where he towers over a dragon).

Principal Scenes

The cycles of St Augustine's life increase steadily in number from the middle ages, becoming very frequent in the eighteenth century (by which time an entire church is devoted to his life story in southern Germany: frescoes by Matthäus Günther, 1738-40, Rottenbuch). The main events of his life are depicted: his early life (Gozzoli, St Augustine at Tagaste, 1460s, San Gimignano); his conversion, with the "Tolle, lege" scene; his baptism; the vision of the child on the seashore. This last legend was abundantly illustrated. A child, often assimilated into an angel, appeared to the saint who was meditating on the mystery of the Trinity: the child is shown trying to empty the sea with a shell, a task no more futile than attempting to explain the Three in One. (François de Nomé, early seventeenth century, National Gallery, London). This anecdote is not the only allusion to Augustine's cult of the Trinity. An angel points to the Trinity in heaven, before which Augustine kneels (Murillo, 1666-71, Museo Provincal de Bellas Artes, Seville). He also holds a flaming heart (an allusion to the love of God and one's neighbour, and a passage in the Confessions, IX, 2:3). Still another interpretation is to be found in the Augustine retable (Neustift), which shows the Trinity as a man with three faces.

Another scene was particularly inspirational: St Augustine hesitating between the blood of Christ and the milk of the Virgin. "Positus in medio, quo vertam nescio, hic pastor a vulnere, hic lactor ab ubere," St Augustine wrote in his Meditations: "I stand between them, which way shall I turn? On the one side the blood of Christ, on the other, the milk of his Mother." Rubens shows Augustine between Christ exhibiting the wound on his left side and Mary exposing her breast from which milk is flowing.