Introducing: The Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo
This painting of Saint Augustine depicts different moments in his life that eventually brought him to Sainthood. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was done with oil paint, real gold and silver on wood. This piece was the main portion of a midieval triptych, a carved or sculpted piece made up of three panels of wood, decorated with religious symbols and often gilt and embedded with jewels. A triptych was used in religious worship as part-of or a standalone altar.
While the history of this piece is shrouded in a bit of mystery, what is known about the painting is that is followed the Netherlandish style of the late 1400s’. Painted by the Master of Saint Augustine whose name (or names) were lost to time, the triptych changed hands from the time of it’s creation until the mid 20th century when it was bought at an estate sale in New York by the Met for their 1961 Cloisters collection. From the hands of the British 9th Earl of Exeter in 1847 to the collection of Munich’s Wilhem Bohler in 1910 and eventually the estate sale of NYC’s late Alfred (d. 1936) and Anna Erikson (widowed, inherented painting, d.1961) in 1961, this depiction of Saint Augustine and his many feats in his life have withstood nearly 500 years of admiration and idolatry.
Saint Augustine was born on November 13, 354 in Northern Africa to his parents Monica and Patricius. His mother was a devout Christian who was later canonized by the Catholic church and became Saint Monica. His father on the other hand, was a pagan and refused to be baptized until he was close to death. Saint Augustine grew up with little interest for practicing Christinanity and spent much time learning about other religions. He became interested in Christianity again when he first met Bishop Ambrose while he was preaching in Milan. Saint Augustine was moved by the way he spoke about the religion and found the teachings to be much more intellectual than he assumed. Although there are many theories as to what made Saint Augustine interested in becoming a man of the Catholic church, Bishop Ambrose baptized him in 387. It wasn’t until the baptism that he really expressed the decision to devote his life to God by sharing his knowledge about Christianity with whomever he may encounter.
In 391, Saint Augustine was ordained a priest of Hippo and then served as the Bishop from 396-430. Up until he died on August 28, 430, Saint Augustine spent his days preaching the words of God to the townspeople in an effort to get more people to believe in Christ. In 1298, he was canonized by Pope Boniface VIII and became recognized as the Doctor of the Church. His feast day is August 20th and he is considered the patron saint of printers, theologians, and brewers. He is known for his prolific writings about Roman Catholocism that are still used today including The City of God and his autobiography The Confessions. He is also well-known by Catholics for his strong influence on the start of the Christian church and the development of the concept of original sin.
Breakdown of the Painting
Literary Comparisons:1. The King of Tars
When we look at how this painting can be compared to both the composition of and story behind the King of Tars, the main connection that first comes to mind is the devotion of those behind both pieces. It’s clear that throughout the painting, details down to slight wrinkles on the face and realism of religious regalia were made a priority in it’s production.
In the King of Tars, the Christian faith is clearly reverred as superior to the Saracen Sultan of Damascus’ Islamic faith--Not only is the Sultan described as dog-like and vicious on multiple occasions, but even more insulting is the lack of understanding of the Islamic faith. Clearly the Midieval poet whose goal was to demonize the Arab speaking world did not have a basic understanding of what their enemies were even worshipping, as worship of Zeus and other idols is not oft a regular practice in Islam. The ultimate goal of King of Tars was to portray how ruthless and murderous the Saracens were whilst impressing upon the readers the virginal pureness and piety of the King of Tar’s daughter, who remains unnamed throughout the piece. At the same time, despite all the struggle and impossible feats in the poem--a baby born with no limbs transformed into a healthy child after a baptism, changing the race of the Sultan when he pledges himself to Christ, and even the mass conversions of his people to Chrisitanity--ultimately it is portrayed as a moral tale, indicative of praise for the glory it brought to the Chrisitan faith. Whilst today it is a stark message about Midieval religious biases, it’s oiriginal purpose suceeded in furthering the gap between Christians and anyone they viewed as an adversary.
Although the religious images and faithfulness are present in both works, what stands out so much when comparing the two is how The Life of Saint Augustine focuses purely on the man himself who, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1961 Cloister’s Collection, Saint Augustine was one of the few of his contemporaries to not inherently persecute or disdain other interpretations of biblical literature and faith. Author Eugene TeSelle wrote in his book Augustine the Theologian that, while granted Sainthood, Augustine was not always Chrisitan. He adhered to and studied many religions, including the Greek Pantheon, the now defunct Manichaean faith, and even contributed to the creation of theory regarding original sin. This clearly serves as a stark juxtaposition against what is said in the King of Tars. Saint Augustine becomes a much more reverential figure the more you learn about him, especially since his religious views were quite progressive for his time. Not much of the two pieces of art are similar, though what differences they have are a bold reminder of how Christians in the Middle Ages percieved people they viewed as outsiders and others.2. Benjamin of Tudela
The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela is a very straightforward piece of literature. Benjamin of Tudela, a Jew from Navarre, or modern-day Spain, writes about his travels throughout Europe to have a record of the Jewish communities and safe havens along this trade route. In describing his travels, Benjamin is very direct about where he traveled, the distance between the places he visited, when he visited and who were the significant members of the Jewish community there. Sometimes he goes deeper into the history of the place, and sometimes his descriptions of cities are only a sentence or two in length. The intent behind this piece is clear, it's a resource for other Jews that need to travel this way free from persecution, and that such a piece survived tells us a lot about the culture of the middle ages. Benjamin of Tudela accepts that his people are marginalized and they need protection, and so he writes a practical solution.
The persecution of Jews was such a deeply accepted part of culture in Europe and in other religious traditions that Augustine's faith in the community, not just tolerance, was a really notable and progressive part of his character. Augustine preached about the acceptance of Jews, that their survival thus far despite facing so much hardship was proof that they were God's chosen people and that they would be saved without conversion. He also preached the importance of good education and community, understanding that a more educated society with practical skills and critical thinking would be a more successful and happy one. Although it's tragic that his philosophies weren't adopted during his lifetime or in the centuries following it, it says a lot about his character that he held these beliefs when the norm, persecution of Jews, would continue for so much longer.
Individual Panel Analysis:
1. Top Left Scene:
The top left scene can be recognized as chronologically the first scene of Saint Augustine’s religious journey, as it is the moment he is ordained as a priest. Saint Augustine can be seen wearing his priest attire in every other scene, which further confirms the top left scene would come first. Medieval Christian rituals for ordination specifically involved being anointed on the hands, which is exactly what is happening in this scene. The minister ordaining Saint Augustine also holds a chalice, which was just starting to be integrated into priest ordination, and became a more important part of ordination throughout the medieval time period. Even though they are inside a religious structure, tiny plants and birds can be seen at the top of the structure. These small signs of life appear throughout the painting, and the fact that they even make an appearance on this building reveals an intentional symbolic use of nature and life to depict Saint Augustine’s religious journey.
2. Bottom Left Scene:
The top left scene seamlessly connects to the bottom left scene, which is a depiction of Saint Augustine preaching to a small crowd that includes a minister as well as Augustine’s mother. All members of the crowd appear to be listening intently with much respect. Saint Augustine’s mother, Monica, is also interestingly holding a rosary, which is a beaded crucifix that was not used in this way during Augustine’s life. This painting was created approximately 1000 years after Saint Augustine’s life, and shortly after the rosary was even established as a common prayer. The rosary describes the “mysteries” of the Chatholic Faith, revolving around the life of Jesus Christ. The rosary making an appearance in this painting is significant because the meaning of the rosary prayer goes hand in hand with Saint Augustine’s own contemplative explorations of life and religion.
Notably, there is a disproportionately small dog in line with Saint Augustine. The dog appears to be depicted as obedient and respectful, despite appearing to be a younger, slightly unkempt street dog. There are many interpretations as to why this dog was included, but it sticks out so much from the whole painting. Perhaps it is a symbol of unruliness becoming tamed underneath Saint Augustine’s preach, which would actually be supported by the constant use of nature throughout the painting. A mastery of nature is communicated by the painting as a whole by making its appearances through plants and animals incredibly small. This actually connects very deeply with a belief established a few centuries after this painting was created called “The Great Chain Of Being” in which a natural hierarchy exists across everything, including nature. The way nature is depicted as small but emotionally unified with every scene reveals that the artist may have potentially possessed an advanced view of life for their time period. This idea of being above nature reveals a significant separation of “primitive aspects and tendencies”, which are typically imprinted onto other discriminated races as seen throughout the literature of our class.
3. Center Scene:
Hippo Regius was a city that resided in modern day Algeria, not far from the coast, and is known in modernity as Annaba. During the life of Saint Augustine, Hippo was under Roman control and was a hub for fishing and war vessels. In the center panel of our painting`, we see Saint Augustine consecrated as a bishop. Aside from the lavish decor in the background, there are many environmental ques within the image itself that allude to the power and righteousness exuded by the newly ordained bishop.
First, we see two different types of incense burner present in the foreground. These were used during masses for ritual purposes along with the gilded scepters wielded by the men in the background. Another important detail that denotes a great amount of reverence for Saint Augustine is the care taken in depicting his attire. If we look closely, we are able to see individual threads on the decorative trim of his robe, the gold clear against the more subdued red fabric.
That isn’t the only instance of precision in the painting--Further examining the background lends us a vision of more Saints framing Saint Augustine himself, high up on the wall as either stained glass or statuesque figures. These figures are also present on what appears to be a large golden altar that comes to a point towards the top of the painting. Present here are depictions of what seems to be the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Perhaps on purpose, this shrine looms over the men in the foreground and takes center stage, representative of the message that the holy men are sworn to preach.
Finally, if we focus in on the figures on either side of Saint Augustine, we see the ornate religious head-pieces with a white base, encrusted with jewels, pearls, and gold. As they place the regalia onto him, more and more metallic flashes can be noticed: gilt chain necklaces and rings, decorated crucifixes, and even in the tapestry-like sashes on the shoulders of the other bishops.
There are a multitude of details in this image that haven’t even been discussed, yet the main unifying aspect present in this piece is the presence of gold. Representative of wealth, power, and perhaps even holiness, the gold present here in this center panel reflects on this important moment in Saint Augustine’s life--A man who dedicated his life to the study of religion without an inherent hatred for those with different interpretations of faith is a rare occurance in the Middle Ages. As he encroaches on the later years of his life, Saint Augustine becomes ordained on the North African coast where he grew up. One last great addition to the piece overall is the faint golden halo that surrounds him, visible under the hands of the man placing the garment on his head. It denotes both his status in the church as well as the holiness exuded by someone who would, even in death, go on to reach Sainthood.
4. Top Right Scene:
The top right scene shows Saint Augustine by the water with a young boy. Dressed in an all white garment, he looks down at the boy who is sitting in the sand. According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the image is displaying a conversation between Saint Augustine and a boy who says that “filling a hole in the sand with the sea is no more difficult than explaining the Trinity”. In the Catholic Church, the Trinity is defined as the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Eternally, God coexists as these three beings. Saint Augustine was known for his explanations of Catholic beliefs and teachings because he was a profound theologian and writer.
This image is a lot simpler than others in the frame. There isn’t a lot going on and because of the color of the garments and placement of Saint Augustine, he stands out amongst everything else. His outfit looks similar to the wardrobe of a Bishop which emphasizes his role as a holy figure. Saint Augustine’s placement above the boy also emphasizes his role as a teacher. The two are the focus of the painting, but in the background we can see the city, the hills, and other people who seem to be of religious affiliation. One of the figures in the back has a head piece on that looks like the habit nuns wear. Another figure is wearing a long black rob over a white garment.
5. Bottom Right Scene:
This scene depicts Augustine preaching to a group of five men in a more casual setting than the rest featured in the painting. All the men are standing, some don't seem attentive to his words, and they're framed against a plain gray wall that stands between them and the water scene. From their garments and mannerisms, it seems that this group is relatively wealthy and well-educated. On the left, a man with a shaggy haircut wears a black coat with a golden-brown trim that resembles fur. He has an ornate sword at his belt, displaying his status. He's taking notes or recording the words of Augustine, but his clothes suggest that he's not a member of the church.
There are two individuals behind Augustine who have their outfits mostly obscured by the Saint, but both seem focused on something outside of the scene. To his left, the man is wearing a wool felt beret and seems to be looking directly at the viewer of the painting. The two rightmost figures are men in deep green and black robes respectively. One has fur trim, similar to the note-taker, and he's holding a single hand in a prayer gesture beneath his chin. The man in the green robe is holding his abdomen, just beneath his heart, and carrying a book under his shoulder.
This, compared to the other scenes in the paintings, seems like a more impromptu meeting between Augustine and members of the upper class. All are well-dressed and the actions of these individuals suggest their education and discipline. Each scene in this piece shows Augustine interacting with a different demographic of people at different moments of his life, and the scholars present here contrast the child depicted above and the more general audience of the organized sermon in the opposite corner.
The composition of this scene is also interesting, the pale red robes and golden halo of Augustine stand out more against the dull color of the wall and the clothes of the men around him, and it contrasts with the deep green of the man to the right. These two figures stand out the most among the crowd, and their presence compared to the sparse background also makes them particularly stand out against the rest of the painting. Green and red dominate the whole piece, and that contrast is no more present than it is between Augustine and the scholar in this scene.
- https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/471903. Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
- Saint Augustine | Biography, Philosophy, Major Works, & Facts | Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Augustine. Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
- “Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo. by Master of Saint Augustine.” Fine Art America, https://fineartamerica.com/featured/1-scenes-from-the-life-of-saint-augu.... Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
- “St Augustine, Florida Visitor’s Guide & APP - Visit St. Augustine.” St Augustine Visitor’s Guide & APP - Visit St. Augustine, https://www.visitstaugustine.com. Accessed 8 Apr. 2022.
- Tornau, Christian. “Saint Augustine.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2020, Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/augustine/.
- Woollcott, Philip. “Some Considerations of Creativity and Religious Experience in St. Augustine of Hippo.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 5, no. 2, 1966, pp. 273–83. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1384851.