|Saint Augustine of Hippo,
Bishop and Doctor (354 - 430): The Iconography
After what he considered a misspent youth Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in Milan in 387. After considering and reconsidering conversion, he had overheard a child singing Tolle, Lege ("Take and read") and responded by opening a Bible to a verse that cemented his decision. After the baptism he returned to his native Africa and was eventually ordained a priest by the bishop of Hippo Regius, whom he subsequently succeeded. In Hippo he organized a community of men who were ordained and had pastoral duties like priests but lived together like monks; this was the inspiration for the later development of the Order of St. Augustine. He also wrote a remarkable number of influential works on the Christian religion.1
When portrayed alone or with other saints, Augustine is often shown with a book (example) and sometimes with a heart (example). But most often he can be identified by a splendid set of "pontifical" vestments – richly adorned mitre and crozier, episcopal gloves and sandals, and an elaborately decorated cope. The edging of the cope may be richly embroidered, with portraits of saints (example) or scenes from sacred history (example). Jewels may decorate the mitre and the edging and buckle of the cope, as at left.
Such splendor is not based on the practice of the historical Augustine. The Golden Legend quotes him as having disdained costly garments and even selling them off when they arrived as donations so that their "price may be shared by all." Rather, the image of Augustine in rich vestments is drawn from three of the miracles recounted in the Legend where the saint appears to those who have prayed to him "dressed in splendid pontificals" – in one case arriving on "a shining cloud coming down from Heaven."2
It is well to consider that medieval portraitists tend to imagine a saint as in the timeless present in Heaven. Thus, for example, we often see saints communing with each other who lived on earth in widely different eras (example), or witnessing a notable event even though they were born centuries later (example).
The Church of St. Augustine in San Gimignano has a remarkable cycle of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli that traces the saint's life, and elsewhere images from his life are not uncommon: the Tolle Lege, the baptism, the return to Africa, his career as a priest and bishop, and his work as a writer.
Another popular subject is the "Parable of the Trinity" (example) According to this legend, Augustine was walking by the seaside meditating on the Trinity when he noticed a boy using a spoon to transfer water from the sea into a little hole in the sand. The boy explained that he intended to move the entire sea into the hole. "What?" said Augustine, "it is impossible!" To this the boy replied that it would be easier to put the entire sea into that hole than it would be to put "the mystery of the Trinity and his divinity into thy little understanding." And then he vanished.3
The miracles effected by St. Augustine's intercession are represented only infrequently. One puzzling case is a painting in which the saint washes the feet of a pilgrim who appears to be Christ himself. Neither Caxton nor the full text of the Legend nor the many pages on Augustine in the Acta Sanctorum have anything to say about such an episode, although in one miracle a group of pilgrims suffering disease is cured by praying at the saint's tomb.
Feast day: August 28
At left, "St. Augustine and St. Jerome" - Crivelli, 1490
Masaccio portrait with St. Jerome, 1426
16th-century Madonna and Child with St. Augustine