Philippe de Champaigne
1645 – 1650
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
A Christian at 33, a priest at 36, a bishop at 41, and today greatly revered as the Father or Doctor of the Church. We are all familiar with the life-sketch of St Augustine of Hippo – a sinner turned saint. Through this painting let’s look at his life through art.
The painting in consideration is executed by the French Baroque painter – Philippe de Champaigne in a typical Counter-Reformation style. We see a bearded Augustine seated on an ornate chair in the darkened interior, of his book-lined study.
Augustine was Bishop of Hippo, the ancient name of the modern city of Annaba, Algeria. Therefore Augustine is depicted wearing episcopal garments. Notice his mitre placed on the table and his pastoral staff or the crozier leaning nearby. The vestments he wears are richly embroidered with depictions of evangelists and saints. A large clasp with an image of Christ holds the mantle around his frail figure – as if he is cloaked by Christ.
The manuscript he writes is placed on the desk. As he begins, St. Augustine pauses. With a quill pen in his hand, he looks over his shoulder for inspiration. As he seeks the Truth, the Truth seeks him and sets him free. Having embraced the Truth, Augustine crushes the heretical scrolls and texts with his right foot. Observe the names inscribed on the scroll and books. They read – Celestius, Pelagius, and Julian. This indicates the intense theological debates on original sin and grace that Augustine was engaged in with these and other thinkers of his time.
As St Augustine gazes at the divine light bearing the words Veritas meaning Truth, the light gently illuminates the Biblia Sacra or the Bible placed on a wooden lectern to the left of the room. The light symbolizes the Living presence of God.
Notice as the Sacred pages mystically curve and flutter. One can almost feel the Spirit moving in the room. The Spirit of God inflames Augustine’s heart and mind with the burning love of God and for God.
Above the manuscript, in his left hand, Augustine holds his flaming heart.
Interestingly, his heart is placed beyond his physical self. The whole image radiates the passionate spirituality of this man of God. Having lived within the recesses of sin and darkness, Augustine understands the beauty of light. He clings on to his newfound beauty, ever ancient, ever new.
As Augustine spills his heart onto the canvas of his ‘Confessions’, he writes the song we sing – ‘Our hearts were made for You, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in you.’