Master of St. Augustine, The St. Augustine Altarpiece

Circa 1490
Oil, gilding, and silver on oak panel, 54 1/4 x 59 in. (137.8 x 149.9 cm)
Origin in Bruges, Belgium
The Cloisters, New York City (accession number 61-199)

This is the central panel of the altarpiece.

In the scene on the upper left Bishop Valerius of Hippo ordains Augustine as a priest. (At the moment shown he is anointing Augustine's hands.) Below left, Augustine preaches in Hippo before his bishop. According to the Golden Legend (html or pdf), Valerius' mother tongue was Greek and he needed Augustine to preach to the people in Latin. The museum's description identifies the woman with the rosary at Valerius' left as St. Monica. This would be anachronistic (because Monica died before Augustine returned to Africa from Milan), but then so is the rosary.

The central scene appears to depict Valerius consecrating Augustine as Bishop of Hippo. The three men in white are minor clergy charged with various sacred items associated with baptism: a tall candle, an aspergillum (used at solemn masses for sprinkling the congregation as a symbol of their baptism), a censer, a box for salt (a symbol of preservation from sin to be  placed in the baptized person's mouth), and the two ampullae of chrism or blessed oil. The middle man holds the book from which the celebrant will read parts of the liturgy.

The museum's description of the panel on the right says Augustine is preaching on the Trinity, counting off the number three on his fingers. The upper right shows the "Parable of the Trinity." For other examples of the finger-counting gesture to denote religious instruction, see this page. In some other medieval and Renaissance images the fact that a saint is preaching can be denoted by his or her counting on fingers. This is how St. Catherine's address to the pagan philosophers is pictured in Pinturicchio's 1492 Disputation of St. Catherine (McDowell, 170) and Cenni's St. Catherine Disputing with the Philosophers. We also see the gesture in Jan Polack's St. Peter as Teacher and in Giralte de Bruselas's sclpture group of the Boy Jesus among the Doctors. The same signifier is used even for the true and false interpretings of Nebuchadnezzar's dream. In Master Francke's St. Barbara Altar the saint counts on her fingers as she tries to explain the Christian faith to her father. In Bonaiuto's The Church Militant and The Church Triumphant St. Peter of Verona counts on his fingers as he addresses an unreceptive crowd of heretics.

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Read more about St. Augustine and St. Monica.

Photographed at The Cloisters by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.