Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Seeing St Augustine

Vittore Carpaccio, (c. 1460 – 1525/1526)
Vision of St. Augustine, c.1502
Oil on canvas, 141 x 210 cm
Venice, Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni

The theme of the the painting is based on an apocryphal story in pseudo-Augustine popular in the thirteen and fourteenth centuries.

St Augustine, one of the most important scholar-saints of the early Christian Church, is interrupted as he writes a letter to his fellow scholar, St Jerome.

Augustine looks up to the light which floods in at the window as he hears the voice of Jerome telling him of his death and ascent to Heaven.

While writing the letter St Augustine had been pondering how much glory and joy the saints have in Heaven. St Jerome, accordig to the story, admonished the saint:

"Do you think that you can put the whole sea in a little vase ? ...Will your eye see what no eye of man can see ? Your ear hear by what no human ear can hear ?"

For St Augustine, sunlight was "the Queen of all Colours pouring down for everything". Light was the subject of his only poem which was on the light of the Easter Candle.

The shaft of light transfixes both St Augustine and his Maltese dog. For Renaissance Platonists the light would have signified the emanations from the mind of God that illuminate human mind giving rise to the highest and most spiritual understanding.

The light illuminates the eye and the mind. God made light before the rest of creation. The Light is the third figure of the painting.

In the background is an altar with a statue of Christ and Augustine's bishop's mitre and staff. Books lie open on the bench on which Augustine sits, while others are piled up on the floor in front and on the shelves. The sea shell is a reference to the meeting of St Augustine with the Christ child on the sea shore.

The painting gives a marvellous, if idealized vision of a contemporary Venetian scholar's room.

The artist records everything in minute detail which impress his viewers with the reality of the story.

Some commentators have speculated that the features of St Augustine in the painting are those of Cardinal Bessarion, whose collection of books formed the nucleus of the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice.

Soon we shall be celebrating the Feast of St Augustine.

Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that the Saints constitute the most important message of the Gospel, its actualisation in daily life, and therefore represent for a real means of access to Jesus.

Bernanos wrote that "every Saint's life is like a new blossom in spring".

Twenty three years ago Pope John Paul II noted the importance of St Augustine of Hippo by issuing an Apostolic Letter on the 16th Centenary of the Conversion of St Augustine.

The scope of the Letter is long, comprehensive and exhaustive.

Here is only one small section of the letter which deals with one small but important facet of a great, towering and complex individual:
"[St Augustine] was a man of prayer; one might indeed say, a man made of prayer—it suffices to recall the famous Confessions which he wrote in the form of a letter to God-and he repeated to all, with incredible persistence, the necessity of prayer: "God has willed that our struggle should be with prayers rather than with our own strength", he describes the nature of prayer, which is so simple and yet so complex,) the interiority which permits him to identify prayer with desire: "Your desire is itself your prayer; and if your desire is continuous, then your prayer too is continuous." He brings out its social usefulness also: "Let us pray for those who have not been called, that they may be called. For perhaps God has predestined them in such a way that they will be granted and receive the same grace in answer to our prayers"; and he speaks of its wholly necessary link to Christ "who prays for us, and prays in us, and is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest; He prays in us, as our head; He is prayed to by us, as our God. Let us therefore recognize our voices in him, and his voice in us."

He climbed with steady diligence the steps of the interior ascents, and described their program for all, an ample and well-defined program that comprises the movement of the spirit toward contemplation—purification, constancy and serenity, orientation toward the light, dwelling in the light) _ the stages of charity — incipient, progressing, intense, perfect—the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are linked to the Beatitudes, the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, the examples given by Christ himself."
(From Pope John Paul II, The Apostolic Letter Augustinum Hipponsensem on the 16th Centenary of the Conversion of St Augustine on The feast day of St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, 28th August 1986)