Benozzo Gozzoli EN
San Gimignano with the Church of Sant'Agostino and the Augustinian monastery in the foreground.
Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497), a pupil of Fra Angelico (1387-1455), acquired the title of "maestro" by the age of 40 due to his extraordinary talent as a painter of historical subjects. Within the art of painting, historical painting is the hardest genre to master because it requires not only technical skill, but also artistic talent and intelligence. The painter has to be acquainted with countless biblical and hagiographical traditions. Apart from this he must be able to visualize his interpretation of these traditions in captivating and clear scenes which mentally and spiritually elevate his audience to a higher plain. To achieve all this, Gozzoli could not have asked for a better teacher than Fra Angelico. Years later declared 'Blessed' by the Church, this fresco painter at the court of Cosimo de Medici is famous for his monumental and poetical method of representing biblical tableaux and saints' lives. His work bears witness to the true Renaissance love of beauty, a beauty embodied in the exalted peacefulness of the representation, in the plasticity of the figures, the sense of depth achieved by line perspective, and in the balance and harmony of the composition and the colour scheme. But whereas Fra Angelico was a meditatively painting monk, Benozzo Gozzoli was a man of the world. And he adds this worldliness to his works in the form of the landscapes, buildings and people of his age.
In 1463 Benozzo Gozzoli was invited by Fra Domenico Strambi, prior of the Augustinian monastery in San Gimignano, to decorate its monastery church, the present day Sant'Agostino. Son of a wealthy family, Domenico Strambi finances the project from his own means, thereby assuring himself of a strong influence on the project. Gozzoli's original mandate was to paint the "The Life of St. Augustine and of St. Monica in seventeen scenes", but he shortened it to "The Life of St. Augustine".
The decoration plan of the Life of St. ’ Augustine
1. Augustine visits his primary school in Thagaste
2. Augustine begins his training with the orator in Carthage
3. Monica prays for her son
4. Departure from Carthage
5. Arrival in Ostia
6. Augustine teaches rhetoric in Rome
7. Departure for Milan
8. Arrival in Milan
9. Meetings with Ambrose
10. Augustine reads St. Paul
12. Legends around Augustine
13. Monica's death
14. Bishop Augustine blesses the faithful
15. Conversion of Fortunatus
16. Augustine's vision of Saint Jerome
17. Augustine's funeral
Augustine visits his primary school in Thagaste
The first image is a large rectangular tableau consisting of two simultaneous scenes. On the left we see Augustine's parents, Patricius and Monica, entering their son for school and handing him over to the care of a bearded teacher. His parents have different religious convictions. Monica is a Catholic (she was sanctified centuries later, which accounts for the aureole). Patricius is a pagan. Both parents radiate loving care in their facial expressions and gestures. Monica points her left hand at her son, Patricius petitions with his left hand for protection. The persons behind the parents are probably relatives, in view of the tight group formation. And little Augustine himself? He is a neat little boy. Tidily dressed and well combed, he has his arms crossed and shows how well behaved he is. To the right of the picture a well known didactic principle is portrayed: "those who exert themselves are rewarded, those who don't are punished". The same teacher wields a whip in one hand, ready to apply it to the bare bottom of a naughty boy (carried by an older pupil), while pointing his other hand to little Augustine, who has been working diligently. He is walking side by side with the teacher and on a little slate he shows us he has mastered the letters of the alphabet.
The school, under the open loggia, demonstrates another didactic principle: "older helps younger". In three places we see pupils helping other pupils with reading and writing. The entire tableau is set within a fantastical architectural environment, based on contemporary Roman and Florentine buildings. This background presents Gozzoli with quite a few challenges in the sphere of line perspective. Especially handsome is the vista of the city gate, where the gatekeeper with his dog is, apparently, refusing a (naked) diabolic figure entrance to the city. Possibly a reference to the banning of evil or of pernicious diseases like the plague? The latter option is probably the most likely, in view of the situation in San Gimignano at that time. Compositionally Gozzoli achieved a certain harmony by balancing the composition of both scenes. While the left group is set up rather compactly and vertically (a verticality extended to the buildings behind), the right group is more spread out and horizontally orientated, as are the building behind it. It is particularly in this set-up we can recognise the hand of the master, though not so much in the execution of it which he left to Piero Francesco Fiorentino, one of his assistants.
2. Augustine begins his rhetorical studies with an orator in Carthage
Augustine begins his rhetorical studies with an orator in Carthage
Gozzoli places the rhetorical curriculum in his own time, mid 15th century, when several universities had come to fruition in Western Europe. This explains the commonly used title "Augustine at the University of Carthage". According to tradition Augustine studied the seven liberal arts here, consisting of a trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and a quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music). The prestigious study of theology was reserved for the happy few. This right side of this painting has sustained quite a lot of damage in the course of time.
We see Augustine kneeling in front of a teacher, while listening to part of a manual. The teacher is recognisable by his professional clothing: a wide white toga, a broad red cape, a pleated white collar, and the characteristic head gear with segmented band. Apparently Augustine is not just listening. Judging by his hand gestures he seems also to be trying to explain something. Sitting beside the teacher is a school official. He is observing the scene suspiciously, while holding in his hands a leather bound book. Are we dealing here with an admission exam and is the official considering whether he should enlist this new student? This seems to be the case, for both the younger student in the doorway and the older students in the foreground are listening anxiously to the proceedings.
In this tableau Gozzoli again uses an architectural background, closed on the left and open on the right, with a vista of the city. This scheme is especially refined with respect to its colour combination, for the bright orange colour stands out particularly well against the greyish bleu colours of the interior. In accordance with the striving for harmony the damaged part on the right may well have contained a standing figure, dressed in long pleated brown clothing, like the one Augustine is wearing. Could he have been Romanianus, Augustine's patron and financier, coming to sponsor his protégé? The picture shows us a servile, obedient, devoted young man, already the subject of admiration and envy. About 375 Augustine finished his studies and became a teacher in rhetoric himself (375-386)
Monica prays for her son
Here we see Monica experiencing her son's departure in 383. Doubting the intentions of the pupils trusted to him in Carthage, Augustine had decided to continue his teaching career in Rome. This painting, which was restored several times, consists of two simultaneous scenes.
On the left we see Monica in a Gothic chapel, kneeling in front of an altar with a polyptych containing a Madonna statue. Supported by several women she is entreating the Mother of God to protect her son during his travel across the Mediterranean. On the right she is standing outside the chapel, flanked by one of the women, blessing her son. Like the two children standing beside her, she shows, like any mother would in the circumstances, her sorrow and fear in bearing, facial expression and gestures. Typically the artist associates Monica's faith with a Catholic architectonical environment, like this Gothic chapel, whereas in previous images of Augustine he had used classical fantasy architecture to evoke Roman Thagaste and Carthage.
Het is typerend dat de schilder het geloof van Monnica onmiddellijk verbindt met een katholieke architectonische omgeving zoals deze gotische kapel, terwijl hij bij het afbeelden van Augustinus nog klassieke fantasiearchitectuur gebruikte die kon doen denken aan het Romeinse Thagaste en Carthago.
Departure from Carthage
This is not the original painting but a later interpretation. The original painting, as well as the sinopia (charcoal draft), was so heavily damaged a completely new scene had to be painted.
Gozzoli's sophisticated compositional technique and colour use are obviously lacking : we are confronted with a rather direct style of painting. We see Augustine making the crossing accompanied by a couple of sailors and some of his faithful supporters. It is not as yet clear whether his concubine and their son Adeodatus, who also made the crossing with him, are also present in the vessel. The crossing is clearly expressed by the fact the stern is still touching African soil, while the prow has already reached Italian shores. The shape of the vessel is a cross between a Roman and a 17th century sailing ship.
Arrival at Ostia
The lower part of this fresco has also been restored several times. The person farthest left originally wore long clothing up to her sandals, and the position of the legs of the youth carrying the sword used to be different as well. It is doubtful if we are dealing with an original painting at all, rather than a filled in sinopia.
Here we probably have a highly placed official of the Manichean community of Rome welcoming Augustine, dressed as a teacher. Who else are present? In the first place the sailors in the ship, and, more interestingly, two figures on the left. The youth carrying the sword might be Adeodatus, Augustine's son, for he strongly resembles Augustine: the same slender build, the same delicate features, the same eyes, the same colour hair and hair style. With his sword he sets himself up as the protector of the expedition. Could the woman behind the presumptive Adeodatus be Augustine's concubine, carefully carrying ashore the bundle of linen?
The landscape in the background certainly doesn't belong to Ostia, but rather to the mountains of Tuscany with its farm lands and olive trees. Artistically this landscape is a nice solution. The horizontal composition of the figures contrasts well with the diagonals of the ship's rigging and the diagonal formed by the hill and the large tree. Within this scheme there is a fine example of "form rhyme" in the horizontal line of the heads being scaled down and repeated in the yard and the crow's nest of the ship. The compositional contrast is strengthened by the colour contrast consisting of the greens of the landscape against the red/orange colours of the clothing. Gozzoli doesn't use a architectonic line perspective here, but instead he uses a so-called reduction technique. This is illustrated beautifully by the three building on the hill diminishing in size. A magnificent fresco of a magnificent Renaissance artist!
Augustine teaches rhetoric at Rome
This fresco is striking because of its compositional set-up running parallel with the central line perspective. This combination makes for a symmetrical or mirror image, resulting in a highly harmonious whole. The lines of the marble tile floor and the lines formed by the figures on the left and right, portraits both of well known and of lesser known Manichean friends of Augustine's, converge on Augustine, more specifically on his heart.
Augustine is at the centre of this painting. The lines of the marble tile floor and the coffer ceiling point directly to the scholar. He is portrayed as an orator (teacher in rhetoric) as is clearly illustrated by a pupil on his right hand turning his manual toward the spectator. .
The pleasing symmetry of the classical columns and medallions is surprisingly interrupted by vistas. On the left we see a portion of Rome including the back of the Pantheon, on the right we see part of the city wall, the pyramid of Cestius and the hilly country behind. Could the winding road through the hills be an allusion to Augustine's imminent departure from Rome and his travel to Milan? Another surprising feature is the presence of a dog in the lecture-hall. Are we dealing with a sheepdog and is it a reference to Augustine's future pastoral role within the Church? As an orator Augustine only stayed in Rome for one year (383). As a teacher he was paid poorly, his job as a court orator for the Emperor Valentinian II gave him no satisfaction. In the later Roman Empire rhetoric had degenerated into empty phrases, pointless arguments and smooth talking.
Departure for Milan
This fresco is exceptional because it contains a scroll at the top in which Domenico Strambi, who commissioned the paintings, is extolled. The text says Domenico had the sanctuary painted by Benozzo Gozzoli at his own expenses.
This scene, designed by Gozzoli and executed by Fiorentino, is somewhat at variance with historical data, since Augustine is supposed to have travelled by imperial coach owing to his prestigious appointment as city orator of Milan (384). On the other hand the painting does show Augustine had become an important personage, departing for Milan surrounded by family, supporters, writers and stenographers.
This fresco depicts more a noble pilgrimage of the 15th century than travel to a new employer. It is certainly not unthinkable that the idea of a pilgrimage was in the back of Strambi's and Gozzoli's minds during the composition of the decoration program, because this journey would eventually lead to Augustine's conversion to the Catholic faith. This would give an added significance to the presence of the angels. The boy we tentatively identified earlier as Adeodatus is again present. He is walking beside Augustine as his escort and protector. A knight and his squire: no uncommon phenomenon in those days.
This painting has a symmetrical composition as well, not however by way of a line perspective or a harmonious compositional set-up, but by the application of dynamic and static elements. The dynamic middle section consisting of the travelling group is flanked by the static groups of Roman citizens on the left and none other than the painter Benozzo Gozzoli (in red) with his assistants on the right. The fact that the group on the left consists of Roman citizens is indicated by the portrayal of the city of Rome in the background, recognisable by the Pantheon and the pyramidal grave monument of Cestius on the right. The Tuscan landscape in the background not only provides depth by the use of reduction, but fulfils a function in the story as well: the travellers can be seen again riding up the hill on the right. The presence of the dog accompanying Augustine has already been explained.
Arrival at Milan
Here Benozzo Gozzoli reverts to an architectonical setting. Yet again we have a number of simultaneous scenes: within the architectonical setting three separate scenes are taking place.
Centrally in the foreground we see Augustine having just arrived at Milan. He is still wearing his travelling coat and a servant is removing his spurs. The youth we identified as Adeodatus earlier is taking care of Augustine's horse and the other travelling companions are, somewhat wearily, getting acquainted with the citizens of Milan underneath the loggia. The second scene takes place underneath the loggia. There we see Augustine kneeling and subserviently introducing himself to an oriental looking wise man, who is flanked by a western type philosopher. On the far right we see the third scene, the meeting of Augustine and Ambrose, the bishop of Milan.
The loggia where the scenes are set is probably the loggia of the Palazzo Lanzi in Florence as it was in the 15th century. Gozzoli used the building in his composition in a sophisticated way. While the perspectival lines of the building are all pointing to Augustine, the rhythm of the vaults repeats the rhythm of the people beneath. The green colour of the vaults contrasts beautifully with the complementary red/orange colours of the clothing worn by the figures and brings a pleasing balance to the colour range of the painting as a whole. The combination red/green is repeated in the marble tile floor, a floor used also in some of the other paintings. The reddish-brown building in the background on the left and the towers behind it are probably to be considered as the inevitable fantasy architecture. That way the painter can achieve a vista giving the image a deeper perspective because of the section of air. The square towers of San Gimignano probably offered a fair amount of inspiration.
Meetings with Ambrose
Here we see three simultaneous scenes portraying Augustine's gradual conversion to Catholicism, in which Ambrose played no small part.
The scene on the left is not exactly a courtesy call of Augustine, the newly appointed city orator, to the bishop Ambrose. They are having such a heated argument, accompanied by many hand gestures, that Ambrose's secretary is forced to consult the books. In the middle section we see Augustine's mother, Monica, kneeling in front of the bishop. She is listening to him. Is she perhaps asking Ambrose for support with Augustine's conversion in mind? The difference in attitude between her and her son in relation to Ambrose is highly relevant. The right part of the fresco has unfortunately been damaged by moisture and is in a very bad state. But we can just observe Monica's prayers being fulfilled: sitting under Ambrose's pulpit Augustine is touched by his sermons. He is listening attentively, as are the group of women.
The architectural background is not among the best Bennozo Gozzoli painted in San Gimignano. The symmetry of the two vistas is boring and somewhat contrived. The three buildings hardly agree with the three scenes. Is the tall building on the left towering over the sitting Ambrose meant to be his episcopal palace? Both church spires in the vista in the background are definitely an allusion to his function. The beamed roof, painted in the top part of the middle building is not quite right perspectively. Is this the work of a pupil, eluding his master's critical gaze? Or are we dealing here with a reducing perspective in which the designer tried to take account of the viewpoint of the spectator? The painting is after all several metres above our heads! Plenty of questions, no answers.
Augustine is reading St. Paul
Impressed by Ambrose's exegesis of the Bible, Augustine turns to the Holy Scripture once again. Ambrose had recommended reading the book of Isaiah, but Augustine couldn't make head nor tail of it. Then he is advised by his mentor Simplicianus to read St. Paul's letter to the Romans.
In the Confessions, Augustine describes his conversion as follows: "Then suddenly I heard someone in a house nearby singing over and over again: "Pick it up and read, pick it up and read" … I quickly ran back to where Alypius was sitting, for I had left my book with the epistles of the apostle Paul with him when I left him. I grabbed it, opened it, and silently read the first text that caught my eye: "Let us refrain from gluttony and drinking bouts, from fornication and debauchery, and from quarrelling and envy. Rather clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not indulge your body so, that it starts to crave for more" (Rom. 13:13). I had no desire to carry on reading, and in fact there was no need to … " (Conf. 8, XII, 28-30)
In the painting we see him reading with concentration and meditating, while rays from the heavens illuminate him. Could this light symbolise the heavenly voice he heard saying: "tolle, lege" : "Pick it up and read"? The figure to the right of Augustine is his friend Alypius. With a hand gesture he seems to be indicating that Augustine is reading the right words. To the left of Augustine some pupils are deferentially keeping their distance at this almost holy moment.
The background clarifies the scene on the foreground. While on the left behind Augustine the city walls of Milan are still pictured, we already have a view of his future on the right. Augustine has opened the book of letters of Saint Paul at random and is reading it. Convinced by Paul's cautioning words Augustine surrenders himself. Not long after - on Easter night of the year 387 - he will be baptised by Ambrose. The monastery church in the background clearly points to his later life.
This two-part background is clearly divided by a tree which is darkly coloured on the left and lightly coloured on the right. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil? In view of the fact that Augustine is still sitting on the dark side and his friend is standing on the light side, in view of the dark walls of the city opposite the joyous landscape, but also in view of the rosy gate and the flowers on the right, one can conclude the tree from the earthly paradise has been given a symbolic place here.
This fresco, together with the conversion scene, is centrally placed. Both scenes are in the middle row, on either side of the window in the back wall of the apse, and contrary to the other scenes they can clearly be seen from the nave of the church. We can but conclude from this that Strambi and Gozzoli aimed to highlight these scenes. Here we see a naked Augustine, in the baptistery of the church of Milan, being baptised by the bishop Ambrose. Throughout his later life he will be an example to many Christians. The aureole with his name, Sanctus Augustinus, already points to his sanctification after his death.
The eight walls of a baptistery always refer to the number eight as a symbol of perfection. After all the Lord arose on the day after the Sabbath, which is why our Sunday is both the 1st day and the 8th day of our week. By Christ's death and resurrection on Easter night, the beginning of the 8th day, Christians become part of Christ's salvation. Catechumens were preferably baptised on Easter night. Eight is a symbol for the hope of resurrection and eternal life. The octagonal shape of the baptistery is already found in early Christian baptisteries, albeit early Christian baptisteries had a sunken baptismal basin rather than the baptismal fount we see here.
Among the witnesses of the baptism we can recognise Saint Monica and Augustine's friend Simplicianus, both with an aureole, as well as an elderly person who may be the Greek philosopher Marius Victorinus, and on the far right Domenico Strambi, Gozzoli's patron and prior of the Augustinian convent of San Gimignano. Together with Victorinus he is holding Augustine's baptismal robe: a black robe with a soutane and a leather belt. The group on the left is formed by the worldly witnesses of the baptism.
On the back wall of the baptistery is written: TE DEUM LAUDAM[US] and TE DOMINU[M] CONFITEM[UR], the first lines of the Te Deum laudamus, an antiphonal song which, according to eighth century Gallic-Spanish tradition was composed especially for this occasion by Ambrose and Augustine. The Te Deum is, together with the Gloria in excelsis, one of the oldest ecclesiastical songs. It is a joyous song of praise and thanksgiving which is sung in monasteries on Sundays and public holidays as a conclusion of the matins (morning office).
On the baptismal fount there is a date: A DI PRIMA D'APRILE MILLE CCCCLXIIII (Easter Day, the first of April 1464). This date not only refers to Easter Day 387, when Augustine was baptised, but also to the postponement of Gozzoli's work because of a threatening outbreak of the plague. Strambi thought it more important that both the Cathedral of San Gimignano and the Church of Sant'Agostino were provided with images of Saint Sebastian, the patron saint against the feared plague.
Legends around Augustine
These three simultaneous scenes are not based on historical data, but originate in medieval stories and legends. These tell us that Augustine after the death of his mother returned to Tuscany for a short while there to found the Augustinian Order. In truth Augustine founded his first monastic community in North-Africa. The famous story of Augustine and the boy on the beach is also a late medieval legend.
The foundation of the Augustinian Order is represented by way of a visit Augustine is making to the hermits of Montepisano in Tuscany. This scene can be seen at the top of the painting in the middle. Augustine is seated and promises hermits gathered round him a monastery to start a new monastic community there, with the help of his monastic rule. This scene possibly alludes to the year 1256, the year of the Grand Union, when Pope Alexander IV united several groups of hermits living according to the Rule of Augustine into the Ordo (Eremitarum) Sancti Augustini.
The monastery is situated on top of the mountain. It has the well-known Roman set-up, namely a monastery building with a church and a cloister. It is hardly surprising that the form and façade of the monastery church show a close resemblance to the building in which the painter is working at the moment: Sant'Agostino.
On the right we see Augustine explaining his Rule to his brethren. The Rule, consisting of eight short chapters, is the oldest monastic rule of Western Europe. It deals with poverty, charity, obedience, prayer, bible study, apostolic duties and labour, all to be performed in simplicity and modesty. The fruit tree above their heads could be an allusion to the many fruits Augustine's teachings should produce.
The third scene is enacted on the left and portrays a legend very popular in the later Middle Ages. Augustine is supposed to have seen once, while walking on the beach and meditating on the mystery of the divine Trinity, a little boy who was busy emptying the see by scooping water from it and pouring it in a little hole on the beach. When Augustine asked the child (Jesus) to explain his impossible mission, he answered that it was even more impossible to try and understand the mystery of the divine Trinity. The painter accentuates the mystery by painting three shells around the boy, as well as three eggs in a nest.
Gozzoli used a terrace perspective to accommodate three scenes and give the painting significant depth. In doing so he encountered the main drawback of the terrace perspective: the difficulty of preserving the whole. In this he did not succeed very well. One could easily cut up the image into three separate paintings, because each scene has its own background. The legend with the child is portrayed against the fringe of a forest, the tradition of the Rule has a Gothic monastery as its background, and the meeting with the hermits is set in a mountainous area. The difficulty of creating a whole out of these three settings can clearly be seen in the proportions: the forest edge consists of trees that are rather small compared to the mountains behind, while the Gothic monastery is far to big in relation to the mountains. Gozzoli must have been aware of this, for he tried to connect the scenes by way of a winding path with a walking monk on it, and to separate them by way of two slender trees. Even so this is a very interesting fresco, the more so because of the city on the far left of the painting, which shows a remarkable likeness to the "city of towers" San Gimignano.
Saint Monica's death
This is the most complicated fresco of the whole cycle because of the many simultaneous scenes and symbolic allusions. In 388 Augustine had decided to return to North-Africa with his entourage, including his mother Monica and his son, to found a religious community there. Having arrived at Ostia he was prevented from making the crossing by the threat of war. By force of necessity, but also because he could make use of several libraries in Rome for his studies, he waited for more auspicious circumstances. During his stay at Ostia his mother Monica fell ill and died shortly after. By her own wish she was buried in the cemetery of Ostia. Part of her grave stone has been recovered.
In the central scene we see Saint Monica in her final hours, being supported by her son Augustine among others. He is standing on the left with his foot on the dais supporting the bed and he is reading to her. The monk to the right of the bed is the man who ordered the paintings, Strambi, having himself immortalized for the second time. The person on the far left, wearing a red garment and clasping his hands, may be Adeodatus, who was terribly afflicted by his grandmother's death.
The dying Monica is looking at the child Jesus, who is coming for her, right before her eyes. At the top of the painting we see Monica, surrounded by a great mandorla, being led to heaven by four angels. We must assume that the group of women behind the bed consist of followers or sisters of Saint Monica in view of the fact that they are all, with one exception, dressed similarly to the dying woman. By the way Monica is not considered the founder of the female branch of the Augustinian Order, Augustine himself is.
In the loggia, top left, we see portrayed the conversation Augustine had with his mother shortly before her death. It refers to the famous passage in the Confessions in which he tries to describe the unique experience they both had when they "rose above their bodies" (Conf. 9, X, 23-25). The hand gestures and the exalted position of the scene strengthen their special experience.
On the right part of the painting we are looking through an open colonnade toward the see and we see Augustine making the crossing to Africa. Gozzoli makes Africa out to be a wild and inhospitable country, judging by the high and bald rocks painted in the background. Augustine is sitting in a boat and, bible in hand, he is taking his leave of Rome. Behind him we can only just make out Saint Simplicianus.
It is wonderful to behold how Gozzoli managed to connect the inside and the outside space and to give them meaning. Monica is dying in a palace-like room. The painter has only portrayed part of the room, but he made it open to the spectator, so that the spectator is being involved in the story. At the same time he placed the dying Monica so, that she has a view, through an opening in the wall, of the sea and her country of birth, Africa. In a refined way he allows the tiled floor to run through, thus inadvertently leading the spectator on from inside to outside : toward the colonnade, toward the sea, toward Africa.
The three minor scenes are, as it seems, mainly important for the composition. For instance, we have a woman holding a baby in the foreground, sitting so as not to interfere with the spectators' view. She plays the part of a setoff, forming a bridge between the world of the spectator and the world within the painting. The fact she doesn't really belong here, is evident from the discordant clothing she wears and from the fact she is facing away from what is going on. On the other hand she may also be there to symbolise motherhood: Monica has followed Augustine intently from when he was a child and took loving care of him right up to her death.
Another scene is being enacted in the right bottom corner. There we see a child and his dog chasing away another child. It is a well-known fact that paganism was sometimes portrayed in the Middle Ages as a naked child, a reference to the naked Cupid of classical mythology. In view of the position of this scene, right beneath Augustine's crossing for Africa, this could be an allusion to Augustine's goal: to banish paganism from his native country. In fact Augustine preferred to make use of clear religious teaching by way of sermons rather than violence.
The third subsidiary scene, the fisherman at sea, reminds one of the task Jesus Christ gave to his apostles: He would make them fisherman of men (Mt. 4,19). This image then points to the new apostolic assignment Augustine is going to fulfil in his native country. In 391 he is ordained priest by bishop Valerius of Hippo Regius and in 396 he is appointed bishop of Hippo Regius. In this city he founds his first monastery, close to the church.
Bishop Augustine blesses the faithful of Hippo
This heavily damaged fresco portrays the closing stage of the consecration service of Hippo's new bishop. We can conclude this from the congregation present. The kneeling women are mostly dressed in colourful long garments and they are wearing jewellery in their hair. They have brought their children with them, who are standing in the front row to receive the benediction. The presence of his fellow brethren, on the far left, are also an indication of Augustine's consecration. The man on the foreground left is bishop Valerius, his predecessor and colleague in Hippo Regius. Valerius sports a long, grey, so-called philosopher's beard, possibly an allusion to his Greek nationality.
It is a pity the fresco is so heavily damaged on the right. As a result Augustine in his bishop's robe can only be recognised by his mitre. We can only just make out the freshly consecrated bishop giving his blessing by way of a peace sign. In the background we recognise Gozzoli's predilection for the use of a central line perspective to give depth to the painting. A true master is at work here: he - unusually - shows us the scene from the presbytery of the church in the direction of the altar. This is apt, for that way he could use the depth of the church to its full. The long perspectival lines come together at the crucifix on the altar. By so doing all attention is focused, not to the newly appointed bishop Augustine, but to the crucified Christ, in conformity with Augustine's new, humbler attitude. Compare this to the line perspective in the fresco of Augustine as an orator, in which the lines focus on the heart of worldly Augustine.
What particularly catches the eye in this painting, is the huge involvement of the spectator. He experiences this happening from so close up, that he can almost kneel with the gathered congregation to receive the blessing. The closeness of the spectator is accentuated by bishop Valerius sticking his foot out of the painting and partially dangling it over the text border. The line perspective corresponds to the difference in authority. Attention is drawn first of all to the crucified Christ, stand to the standing figures (including both bishops and concelebrants) and lastly to the kneeling populace.
The Romanesque church building with three naves seems to originate from the painter's fantasy in view of the curious side-naves with their level ceilings and the alternation of Romanesque and Gothic windows.
The conversion of Fortunatus
This fresco portrays one of many conversion dialogues Augustine had as a priest and a bishop. As a bishop he often - with success - entered into dialogues with the leaders of heretic movement such as Manicheism and Donatism. By his argumentation based on content he managed to lead many of their adherents back to the Catholic Church. This scene involving the Manichean Fortunatus is therefore to be interpreted as a pars pro toto, one example of many.
Augustine is portrayed as a bishop, even though he is wearing the Augustinian habit underneath his bishop's robe. With his considerable powers of persuasion he is convincing Fortunatus of his error. The latter feels he is not equal to his opponent. He is declining his head and "putting his hands in his lap". It is not clear who the two figures in the background are supposed to be. The gaze and hand gestures of the elderly figure are a sign of admiration: could he possibly be bishop Valerius? The books and open letter in the foreground emphasize a discussion on a high intellectual plane is being held.
This fresco was executed in the left top corner of the apse, beside the central window. The small space above the scene, which is set off by an architrave decorated with garlands, offers the painter little opportunities. It is therefore admirable to see how Gozzoli manages, by way of a tower and two trees against a blue sky, to somewhat reduce the ponderousness of the scene. Pictorially there must have been a colour rhyme between the blue sky and the blue robe of the elderly figure. Unfortunately the blue colour of the robe has all but disappeared.
Augustine's vision of Saint Jerome
This fresco, situated in the top right corner of the apse beside the central window, is the counterpart of the previous image. While writing, Augustine receives a vision of Saint Jerome. It is a well-known scene. The way Augustine is sitting at his writing table greatly resembles known depictions of the evangelists, of writing popes, and of persons of nobility at work in their studies. Among other reasons this is why we must see this depiction in a wider context.
Jerome, another major Father of the Church, and Augustine corresponded regularly with one another. From their letters a mutual respect emerges, even though both bible experts were not always in agreement.
According to tradition Augustine is supposed to have had, while writing in a trance, a vision of Jerome, blessing him and admonishing him to carry on vigorously. We see Augustine in his cell, dressed as an Augustinian, but with bishop's robe and mitre, writing a sermon or a discourse. Somewhat surprised he looks upward, where he sees the barely visible blessing hand of Jerome in the blue sky.
Jerome's hand may be barely visible, clearly visible are the references to Augustine's scholarship: the books on the shelves in the wall and in his writing table, the open book on his table, the rolled out letter, the inkwell, the quill, and the hourglass. All of these attributes form a tribute to Augustine's scholarship and impressive oeuvre. For the first time in this cycle Augustine is portrayed as a Church Father, the most important Church Father of the Western world. By his many essays and letters he instructs expert theologians and he defends the dogma of the Church, while by his sermons he makes the Bible accessible to interested laymen.
The conversion of the heretic Fortunatus and Augustine's vision of Jerome are mirror images: observe the seated figures, the architrave on the left and the ceiling on the right and the sky above both paintings. A brilliant solution to complicated spatial problem!
This final fresco was painted on the right lunette field of the apse. It is a grand and dramatic scene in which 36 figures are standing round the body of Augustine, who is lying in state, in order to take their leave of him. Despite the large group of persons present Gozzoli managed to bring order to the whole. Centrally on the foreground the dead bishop is lying, dressed in his bishop's vestments. The painter gave him a grey, curly beard, something we haven't seen until now. The beard may refer to the ripe old age Augustine reached, 76 years.
Directly around the bier his fellow brethren are positioned, six Augustinian monks who clearly show by their demonstrations of grief that they are among his closest followers. The painter succeeded admirably in depicting six different emotions. From left to right we have: contemplation, prayer, humility, reverence, lamentation, and fear. Although the six fellow brethren as a group stand for the Augustinian Order as a whole, it is evident the monks are also considered as individuals, as is clear from their different ways of coping with their loss: a typically Renaissance thought.
The large group that is standing at some distance in a semi-circle around the grieving fellow brethren, consists of three subgroups. On the left we have a group of non-Augustinian celebrants, including the bishop, in the middle we have a number of religious from different monastic orders, and on the right we have a group of candle-bearing Augustinian acolytes.
The architectonic background clearly contributes to the orderly arrangement of the foreground. The loggia with its blue arches, strongly reminiscent of Brunelleschi's Ospedale degli Innocenti (1419) in Florence, is flanked on the left, above the secular priests, by a (episcopal) palace, while the candle-bearing Augustinians on the right have been placed against the side wall of a monastery church. And then there is the masterly way in which the painter leads the spectator's eyes from the earth up to heaven above. Naturally our eye is drawn first to the centrally placed dead, then to the figures around him, after that to the tiled roof of the Florentine loggia and to the monastery roof above it, eventually reaching the scene in which Augustine's soul, still clothed in its earthly form, is led by two angels towards heaven inside a mandorla. Truly a stairway to heaven.
Compositionally, Gozzoli devised a special scheme for this scene. For when we extend the perspective lines from the different roof edges to the bottom frame, we find that they cross at the head of the figure dressed in white who is standing behind the deceased, afterwards neatly enclosing the bier carrying the dead Augustine. A masterly find! Obviously Gozzoli had learned from his previous job in the Franciscan monastery of Montefalco, where he had painted a similar - but not quite so balanced - funeral scene as the concluding fresco of the Life of St. Francis.
Tekst : drs. Ger Jacobs ; translated into English by drs. Willem Erven
The author, G.T.A. Jacobs, M.A., has a degree in art history and cultural sciences. This article was written for the Augustijns Instituut in Eindhoven. Use of this article is only allowed with permission of the author.
Foto's : Jan van Lierop, Ger Jacobs, Jan-Martijn van der Werf, and www.augustinus.it > iconografia. Courtesy of the Augustinians of San Gimignano
• Die Augustinusvita von Benozzo Gozzoli aus der Kirche S. Agostino in San Gimignano / Matthias Strauss, in : Augustiniana ; 52 (2002), fasc. 1, p. 1-172. - ISSN : 0004-8003
• Benozzo Gozzoli : The life of Saint Augustine in San Gimignano / Diane Cole Ahl, p. 359-382 in : Augustine in Iconography : History and legend / ed. by Joseph C. Schnaubelt OSA, Frederick Van Fleteren. - New York [etc] : Peter Lang, 1999.-
• a survey of images of Augustine see www.augustinus.it > iconografia of Città Nuova.
• A short description ofAugustinian saints can be found on the website of the Belgian Augustinians
• See also San Gimignano Frescoes of the Life of St. Augustine (Guide for students) Villanova University