In portraits St. Augustine is dressed as a bishop, but what distinguishes him from other bishops is his 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
or scenes from sacred history
Jewels may decorate the mitre and the edging and buckle of the cope, as at right.
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 the liturgy and the legends, and is meant to envision the saint as he is now, in Heaven.
In the liturgy, the splendid garment appears in the Collect for the saint's feast on August 28: "In the midst of the Church he opened his mouth, and God filled it with the spirit of wisdom and intellect; he clothed him in a robe of glory" (Missale Romanum, 529).
Building on the idea of the "robe of glory," the hagiography collected in the Golden Legend tells of three miracles in which the saint comes from Heaven "splendid in his pontificals" to encourage those who have prayed to him – in one case arriving on "a shining cloud."1 "Pontificals" are the beautiful garments worn by a medieval bishop on especially important occasions.
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). So showing Augustine in pontificals is a way of saying, "this is what he looks like now, in Heaven."
Like many other bishop saints, Augustine is often shown with a book and a maquette of a church, as at right. But an attribute more specific to him is a heart, sometimes pierced by an arrow (example). Molanus (338-39) explains the heart attribute as a reference to two passages from the saint's writings. The first is from a commentary on Proverbs 23:26, "My son, give me thy heart and let thy eyes keep my ways." Augustine writes, "He says, give me. Give me what? Son, your heart. When it stays with you, it will go ill. You will be drawn to toys and to lascivious and harmful loves. Give me, he says, your heart. Let it be mine, and it will not perish."
The second relevant passage, from Confessions IX, 2:3, explains why some images show the heart pierced by an arrow: "Thou hadst pierced [sagittaveras] our heart with thy love, and we carried thy words, as it were, thrust through our vitals."
The dramatic story of Augustine's conversion and life was well known in the Middle Ages and frequently illustrated. After what he considered a misspent youth he was baptized by St. Ambrose in Milan in 387. After considering and reconsidering conversion, he 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.2
The Church of St. Augustine in San Gimignano has a remarkable cycle of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli that traces the saint's life, including the Tolle Lege and the baptism. Elsewhere, topics covered include Augustine's return to Africa, his career as a priest and bishop, his work as a writer and teacher, his authorship of the "Rule of St. Augustine" and even his first day of school.
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 after 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.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Georgia Regents University, revised 2015-08-19.