The art essay of the month

Saint Augustine (c. 1645–1650) by Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674)

Around the year 400 Deogratias, a deacon from Carthage, wrote to Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, North Africa, seeking advice on how to best instruct those seeking to become Christian. Augustine responded with a small treatise On Catechising Inquirers that would shape the efforts of evangelists, catechists, and educators for centuries.

In his classic text, Saint Augustine pointed to a fundamental truth of Christianity—God is love. He reminded the deacon that the Word of God became incarnate so we might learn how much God loves us. And once the deacon’s audience learned the truth of God’s love, Augustine hoped, they would burn with love of God and love of neighbour.

The primacy of God’s love, permeating Augustine’s Confessions, the City of God, and numerous theological works from his prolific pen, is evoked visually in Philippe de Champaigne’s painting of the 5th-century theologian and Doctor of the Church. This 17th-century image, typical of Counter-Reformation Baroque painting, offers a striking visual catechesis on the divine love that inflamed the heart, mind, and life of the saintly bishop.

The living and active word of God

We see a bearded Augustine in an ornate chair at a sturdy desk in the darkened interior of a book-lined study, framed by a green velvet curtain. The manuscript he writes is placed on the desk, covered in a thick Turkish carpet. Warm, golden light bathes his episcopal garment, trimmed with depictions of evangelists and saints. A large clasp with an image of Christ holds the mantle around his frail figure. His bishop’s mitre rests on the desk, while his crosier leans against a bookshelf with hefty volumes.

Scattered on the floor are a scroll and two books, one of which Augustine tramples firmly under his right foot. The names Celestius, Pelagius, and Julian are inscribed on the scroll and books, indicating the intense theological debates on original sin and grace that Augustine was engaged in with these and other thinkers of his time.

On the left side of the room an ornate wooden lectern holds a copy of the Biblia Sacra, the book of Sacred Scripture. In this intimate scene, God’s word is living and active. One can almost feel the movement of the sacred pages as they curve and flutter gently in this mystical space.

Contemplating love and truth

At the centre of the room we see Augustine pausing with a quill pen in his slender right hand as he turns his gaze around. Above the manuscript, in his left hand, he holds a brightly burning heart, one of his traditional artistic attributes. And as we follow Augustine’s gaze we see him looking intently towards a sunburst of divine light emanating from the upper left-hand corner of the room. The word Veritas is inscribed in golden letters in the burst of heavenly light.

Trace a line from the upper left-hand corner of the painting through the haloed head of Augustine to the flaming heart held aloft in his hand to enter into this transcendent moment of union with God, as divine truth ignites Augustine’s heart with divine love.

Light radiating from truth illumines everything in the scene, evoking the all-encompassing transformative power of truth that comes from God. As Augustine’s mind burns for God’s truth, his heart burns with God’s love. The truth of God that Augustine contemplates and writes about inflames his mind and heart with burning love, because God is love.

The unity of truth and love

The rich colours and intricate details of the scene place this work firmly in the tradition of Flemish painting. Yet its strong outlines, with sharp contrasts of light and shadow conveying dramatic emotion with narrative power, emerge from Champaigne’s rigorous academic training in France.

After an early artistic period in his native Brussels, Champaigne moved to Paris in 1621, where he became a citizen. Soon his artistic talent earned him the coveted role of official painter to Queen Marie de' Medici. He was sought after by French royalty and Church leaders, including Cardinal Richelieu, whose portraits he painted. Champaigne helped found the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648 and served as official portraitist of many notable political figures of his day. A devout Catholic, Champaigne infused his works depicting the Nativity, the Holy Family, Mary, Mother of God, and various saints with strong spiritual fervour.

In his masterful depiction of Saint Augustine, Champaigne invites the viewer to contemplate the unity of divine love and divine truth accessible to saints and mystics now revealed to all in the radiant beauty and exquisite skill of the artist’s vision. Through this image we recognise, with the saintly bishop, that God is the origin and the goal of the desires of our heart and the searching of our mind.

Living the truth in love

The whole of Sacred Scripture was, for Saint Augustine, a call to love God and neighbour. This conviction led him to advise the deacon Deogratias to keep God’s love as the goal of all his preaching and teaching, so that his listeners through hearing would come to believe, through faith come to hope, and through hope arrive at love.

It is said that the longest journey is the movement from the head to the heart, from what is known about God to knowing God himself, whose truth burns in the heart as a radiant light of love against the selfish darkness of the world. A Christian may know profound truths about God, but unless those truths ignite a flame of divine love in the deepest recesses of the heart, God remains a distant abstraction to which only the intellect assents.

In the life of every saint, the unity of mind and heart unfolds in a divine-human dialogue of love. This unity is also the path of ordinary holiness for every Christian. For as Augustine said famously in the opening lines of his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”

Jem Sullivan

Educator and author writing on sacred art and faith in the new evangelisation. 

 

Saint Augustine (c. 1645–1650), Philippe de Champaigne (1602–1674), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California / Image Public Domain www.lacma.org