Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The Life of St Augustine, by Benozzo Gozzoli (Part 2)

The first part of this, which was published on Sunday, the feast of St Augustine, ended with the scene of his conversion; here we pick up the story from his baptism. As in the first part, these public domain images are all taken from the Wikimedia Commons page on the choir chapel of the church of St Augustine in San Gimignano, Italy, where these frescoes were done by the Florentine painter Benozzo Gozzoli between 1463 and 1467.

Eleventh scene: St Augustine is baptized by St Ambrose. In accord with the tradition that the Te Deum was composed by them both on this occasion, the first words of it are painted on the wall behind them. Until 1913, the header “Hymnus Ss Ambrosii et Augustini” was printed in the breviary above it. In keeping with a common artistic convention of the period, after this, the Saint always appears anachronistically clothed in the habit of medieval Augustinian friars, which Gozzoli makes dark, but not black, which would clash too strongly with color scheme of the whole.
Twelfth scene: on the left, the famous (and apocryphal) story that Augustine, after finishing his book on the Trinity, went walking on the seashore, where he saw a boy trying to pour the ocean into a hole in the sand. When he told the boy that this was impossible, the boy replied that it was also impossible to fully explain the Trinity, and disappeared. In the background is represented a medieval tradition of Italian Augustinians that he once visited a group of hermits on Mt Pisano, about 40 miles to the north-west of San Gimignano. (The absence of any reference to a visit to Tuscany in his own writings was ingeniously explained as a lapse of memory, brought on by grief over the death of his mother, St Monica.) On the right, St Augustine is shown as a friar among friars, giving them the Augustinian Rule.

Thirteenth scene: the death of St Monica. This event, which is described in one of the most moving passages of the Confessions (book 9, 11-12), took place in the Roman port city of Ostia, well before Augustine returned to Africa and began to live in a monastic community. His departure is shown through the colonnade on the right. The Augustinian friar who commissioned these paintings, Fr Domenico Strambi, stands at the foot of the bed with an inscription underneath him to indicate who he is. St Monica was buried in Ostia, and her relics were kept there in the church of St Aurea until 1430, when they were transferred to the Roman basilica named for her son.

Fourteenth scene: St Augustine (barely visible on the right where the plaster has been damaged) blesses the people of Hippo after becoming their bishop.

Fifteenth scene: St Augustine converts a priest of the Manichean sect named Fortunatus. Note that he continues to wear his Augustinian habit under his cope.

Sixteenth scene: A representation of a legend that just as St Augustine was composing a letter to St Jerome, the latter appeared to him to inform him that he had just died, and was even then in the glory of heaven.

Seventeenth scene: the deceased St Augustine laid out on his funeral bier.
Gozzoli and his assistants also painted eight Saints on the pillars of the chapel’s chancel arch. On the left pillar, top left, St Monica,
and top right, St Geminianus, a bishop of Modena who died in the late 4th century, and was adopted as the patron of San Gimignano, of which he holds a model in his hands, with its famous medieval towers.
At the bottom left, St Sebastian, patron against plagues, undoubtedly included because of a serious plague that was afflicting Tuscany at the time, and which caused the artist to leave his native Florence.

Bottom right, St Bartolo, a native of San Gimignano and priest of the Franciscan Order, who devoted his life to taking care of lepers after contracting the disease himself.
On the right pillar, top left, St Nicholas, one of the most popular and frequently depicted Saints in all of Italy.

Top right, St Serafina, generally known as Fina, the primary patron of San Gimignano.
Bottom left, St Raphael, also frequently invoked against plagues; here he is shown holding the hand of the younger Tobias on his journey, improbably shown as very young boy.
Bottom right, St Nicholas of Tolentino (1246-1305), the most famous among medieval Augustinian Saints.

An aerial view of the church.

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