Saints in Art: 04 – The Fathers of the Church

In important religious decorations the Fathers, or Doctors of the Church, follow the Evangelists and apostles, and are sometimes grouped with them, as is fitting when we regard the Evangelists and apostles as the spiritual forces of the Church, and the Fathers as those who, in the Church Militant, contended, even through great sorrow and suffering, for what they conceived to be the only creed that embodied the true faith of the Christian Church.

There are few, if any, representations of the Fathers that accord them the full honour due their office and their labours before the tenth century, the period when their importance and their sanctity was fully acknowledged, – when their teaching was regarded as infallible, and they, in short, believed to be inspired by God.

The Latin Fathers are those of the Western Church, – Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, and Saint Gregory, better known as Gregory the Great. These are more familiar in works of art than are the Greek Fathers, or those of the Eastern Church, – Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Athanasius, and Saint Gregory Nazianzen, to whom Saint Cyril of Alexandria is frequently added.

When the Latin Fathers are represented in a group, Saint Jerome is sometimes in a cardinal‘s dress and hat, although cardinals were not known until three centuries later than his time, but as the other Fathers held exalted positions in the Church, and were represented in ecclesiastical costumes, and as Saint Jerome held a dignified office in the court of Pope Dalmasius, it seemed fitting to picture him as a cardinal. The Venetian painters frequently represented him in a full scarlet robe, with a hood thrown over the head. When thus habited, his symbol was a church in his hand, emblematic of his importance to the universal Church.

Saint Jerome is also seen as a penitent, or again, with a book and pen, attended by a lion. As a penitent, he is a wretched old man, scantily clothed, with a bald head and neglected beard, a most unattractive figure. When he is represented as translating the Scriptures, he is in a cell or a cave, clothed in a sombre coloured robe, and is writing, or gazing upward for inspiration. In a few instances, an angel is dictating to him.

Saint Ambrose is represented in his bishop’s robe with mitre and crosier, carrying his book also; again, he carries a knotted scourge, and a beehive is frequently placed near him.

Saint Augustine has a variety of symbols; he is habited as a bishop and carries a book, while other books are at his feet or by his side; sometimes his emblem is a flaming heart, pierced by an arrow.

As a Pope, Saint Gregory has the tiara and the crosier with the double cross. His special attribute is the dove; in ancient pictures this symbol is never far from his ear, sometimes apparently whispering to him, or hovering about his head and shoulders.

Although the Greek Fathers preceded the Latin Fathers as teachers, pictures of them are rarely seen except in Byzantine art. The schism between the Greek and Latin Churches engendered a bitterness which survived for centuries, and Latin artists seem to have forgotten that at one period all the Fathers belonged to all the Church.

The Greek Fathers have a common symbol, a scroll, or book, and the name of each one is inscribed near him. Almost without exception, the right hand is raised in the Greek form of benediction, the first and second fingers extended, and the third finger and thumb joined, so that a cross is made on the inside of the hand. The scrolls in the hands of the Greek Fathers are inscribed with important sentences from their writings.

A good example of the introduction of the Fathers in important ecclesiastical decoration is seen iri Correggio’s fresco in the dome of the Church of San Giovanni, in Parma, in which they are seated near the Evangelists.

The Fathers are also introduced in important scenes in the life of Christ, and in that of the Virgin. In the academy at Venice is a very interesting picture of the Virgin Enthroned, by two of the Vivarini, a family of painters who flourished in the middle of the fifteenth century, and were also called Da Murano, having been born on that island. This picture is attributed to Giovanni and Andrea da Murano. The Virgin is enthroned beneath a baldachin, or canopy, supported by four angels, and apparently placed in the centre of a garden. The throne is on an ornamental platform, slightly elevated, with an elaborate architectural screen behind it, beyond which the tops of trees appear. The Holy Child stands on the Virgin’s knee, and on each side, at a little distance, are two Fathers, Saint Jerome and Saint Gregory on the right, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine on the left.

This picture is overloaded with ornament, and has what has been called an “admirable serenity of colour;” it is an excellent example of the usual method of representing the Latin Fathers. Even at the early date of its execution, the Venetian characteristics were well pronounced. The generous, ornamental draperies, the well-conditioned angels and rosy-cheeked Madonna, the venerable bald heads and flowing beards, as well as the gorgeousness of colour, are more than suggested in the works of the Muranese. I know of no Venetian painting of the same period which excels this in interest and excellence.

There are many pictures which resemble this Virgin Enthroned, in subject and arrangement, and the Fathers can scarcely be mistaken in such works, or when communing together over the theological mysteries which interested them. In the latter representations there is frequently a heavenly vision which is apparent to one or two, but not to, all the Fathers. Good examples of this treatment are Guido’s picture in the Hermitage at Saint Petersburg, and that by Dosso Dossi, in the Dresden Gallery.

Pictures of Saint Jerome are more numerous than those of the other Doctors of the Church. Especially is this true of the devotional pictures in which he is alone. The reasons for this are not far to seek; he not only translated the scripture, but he was the founder of monastic life in the West; he passed four years in penance in the desert, the awful sufferings of which time are known from his own account of them; he was a man of varied attainments, as well as a Christian who waged a continual warfare against everything that was not in harmony with a life consecrated to the service of Christ; all of which raised him to an exalted position in the Church.

The engravings and wood-cuts of Saint Jerome writing or translating, by Albert Dürer, are rare, but exist in a few collections, and, to my mind, excel all other representations of this subject. That of Saint Jerome in his Chamber is a copper-plate, and is esteemed as one of Dürer’s three best engravings. It is very brilliant and minutely finished in every part. The saint is writing at his desk; the room, lighted by two arched windows, is cheerful with sunshine, and the venerable head with its white halo, fixes the interest of the scene where it should be. To the sleepy lion and drowsy watch-dog in the foreground, Dürer added some characteristic German accessories; a pumpkin hangs from a beam, and various useful utensils divide the attention of the spectator with the learned-looking codices near the saint.

Pictures of Saint Jerome as a penitent were painted for the Jeronymites, who claim Saint Jerome as their founder. The edifices of this order are remarkable for their magnificence, and these pictures are too numerous to be spoken of in detail. Saint Jerome is essentially the typical male penitent, as Mary Magdalene is the female, and in this view these saints are most important.

Titian’s Saint Jerome Penitent, now in the Brera, Milan, was painted for the Duke of Mantua in 1563, and is first among the representations of this subject, painful as it is. It represents a wild, mountainous country, in the centre of which the saint kneels on a rock, and gazes at a cross fixed above him. He is nude but for a scanty drapery about the loins, and holds in his hand the stone with which he beats his breast; the lion sleeps in the foreground; a skull and hour-glass are on a rock at the right, together with two clasped volumes. The effect of this picture is marvellously powerful. If one studies it seriously he is transported to a desolate solitude, dedicated to repentance, chastisement, and self-inflicted horrors, the effects of which are all too manifest in the emaciated body and the apparent wretchedness of this famous penitent. It is supremely suited to the purpose for which it was painted.

Almost every Italian artist of note represented this subject, and one only needs to see the Spanish pictures in any gallery – but especially in the Louvre – to discern that its mysticism and gloom rendered it most attractive to the painters of Spain.

One of the famous pictures of the world is the Last Communion of Saint Jerome, by Domenichino. It is honoured with a position near the Transfiguration, by Raphael, in the Vatican Gallery. The scene is the porch of the chapel of a monastery, – as he commanded that he should be borne to the chapel at Bethlehem, just before his death, – through the open arch of which a lovely landscape is seen. The dying saint, supported by his disciples, kneels before the ecclesiastic, who presents the wafer to him, while one attendant priest holds the cup, and a second, kneeling, bears the book and taper. The body of the saint is painfully emaciated, but the aureole is already about his head, and there is comfort in the thought that, as soon as the viaticum is received, the soul will be freed from the sufferings of the flesh.

The lion is near the feet of the saint; above is a group of four angels who watch the solemn scene. The woman, partly concealed by the vestments of the priest. who kisses the hand of the saint, is his faithful disciple, Saint Paula, a noble Roman matron who followed Saint Jerome to Bethlehem and there built a monastery, a hospital, and three nunneries.

Jerome’s visit to Rome was fruitful in the conversion of women of patrician blood, of wealth, intellect, and beauty. Not only Saint Paula, but her daughter Eustochium, and her granddaughter Paula, became members of the community established by Saint Paula at Bethlehem, the austerities of which were so severe that even Saint Jerome disapproved of them.

The first book of Mrs. Oliphant’s Makers of Rome gives a comprehensive sketch of the personality and influence of Saint Jerome, in a charming manner.

There are several statues of Saint Jerome that merit notice. That by Torrigiano, in the museum at Seville, is famous; it represents the saint as kneeling on a rock with a crucifix in one hand, and the stone of torture, with which he was accustomed to beat himself, in the other. The statue of Saint Jerome in the Frari, in Venice, by Alessandro Vittoria, is said to be a portrait of Titian when ninety-seven years old; there is something about it that does not indicate the penitent, although the stone is in his hand, and the lion at his feet. Several other statues of Saint Jerome are seen in Venice, but are like a patron saint rather than a penitent, and represent a very different spirit from that of the saint in Titian’s wonderful picture.

Saint Ambrose was an ideal “muscular Christian,” and his symbol of the knotted scourge of three thongs is a suitable emblem of his punishment of the Emperor Theodosius, and his unsparing condemnation of sins committed by the people of his cure.

A picture in the Frari, at Venice, presents Saint Ambrose making good use of his scourge, as, mounted on a spirited horse, he flourishes it as if to strike down all Arians who are not trampled by his steed. Most of the pictures of this Father represent his stern warfare against the followers of Arius, whom he hated inexpressibly, and pursued with zeal.

His chapel in the Frari contains a grand picture by Luigi Vivarini and Marco Basaiti. Here the Father is enthroned in all the state which pertained to his office as bishop. Even here the scourge is in his hand, and he looks the uncompromising foe to heretics that we know him to have been. A glorious company of saints surround his throne, in which are the other Latin Doctors, all appearing to defer to Saint Ambrose as to a leader and superior.

On the steps of the throne are two musical angels, most suitably placed, since Ambrose gave great attention to music, and to him we owe the introduction of the manner of chanting the service, known as the Ambrosian chant.

Basaiti gave a brilliant colour to pictures, and finished them carefully; these characteristics are seen in the works of the Vivarini in which he was associated, but the broad, fine lines, and the bold sweep of the perspective, as well as the excellent grouping of the saints in this picture, are due to Luigi Vivarini; this reflection deepens the regret that he did not live to complete this work, which fell into the hands of less artistic associates.

In the wonderful Basilica of Sant’ Ambrogio Maggiore, in Milan, which was founded by Saint Ambrose, and dedicated to all the saints, the incidents in the life of this Father are depicted in silver gilt relief, on the back of the altar. Curiously, as it would seem, the violent scenes – those which warrant the use of the scourge as his symbol – are omitted. Even his expulsion of Theodosius from this same basilica is not represented.

In the Belvedere, Vienna, a picture by Rubens shows the scene when the Father refused to permit the Emperor to enter the cathedral. This was a subject well suited to the great Flemish master, and he did it full justice. A very beautiful small copy of this picture, by no less an artist than Vandyck, is in the National Gallery.

The scene is the porch of the cathedral; on the steps is Theodosius, surrounded by his attendants; his attitude is that of hesitating supplication. Above is Saint Ambrose, with several priests, who stretches out his hand toward the emperor in a forbidding manner.

In recent times Saint Charles Borromeo is sometimes represented with Saint Ambrose, partly because he was Archbishop of Milan, and partly on account of his tomb which is in this basilica.

Saint Augustine is very important among the Doctors of the Church, and the constant use of his beautiful Te Deum causes him to be held in grateful remembrance. He composed this for the occasion of his baptism by Saint Ambrose, in the Cathedral of Milan, and its first recital – when the two saints advanced to the altar, each repeating the alternate verses of this grand hymn of praise – would seem to furnish a subject to be welcomed by artists. Pictures of the baptism are seen in chapels dedicated to Saint Augustine, but I have seen none which emphasise the introduction of the Te Deum.

The restless, and even dissipated, youth of this Father gave little promise of such a life as he led in later years, nor could it be reasonably imagined that his theological writings should be so numerous and become so celebrated as to lead scholars and theologians to look to him as their patron saint.

'Saint Augustine Instructing Saint Dominic, Saint Peter Martyr, Saint Lawrence, Saint Sebastian, and Saitn Mary Magdalene', by Andrea del SartoPictures of Saint Augustine alone are rare. He has no special symbol, and simply appears as a bishop. When such a figure with a pen or a book is seen in company with Saint Jerome, it is probably Saint Augustine. He is, however, usually represented with groups of saints, among whom his mother, Saint Monica, is frequently seen. A fine picture of this type, by Andrea del Sarto, is in the Pitti Gallery. Saint Augustine is represented as speaking, in his office of Doctor of Theology; Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, and Saint Lawrence listen attentively, while Mary Magdalene and Saint Sebastian kneel in the foreground. Del Sarto reached an elevated style in painting; his composition was fine, his draperies graceful and harmonious, the whole feeling of his works tranquil, and, as a whole, they make an impression of having been easily and simply conceived and executed. He can be well studied in the Pitti.

Of this picture of Saint Augustine, Kugler says: “Saint Augustine is speaking with the highest inspiration of manner; Saint Dominic is being convinced with his reason, Saint Francis with his heart; Saint Lawrence is looking earnestly out of the picture, while Saint Sebastian and the Magdalene are kneeling in front, listening devoutly. We here find the most admirable contrast of action and expression, combined with the highest beauty of execution, especially of colouring.”

The Ecstasy of Saint Augustine, when, borne aloft by angels, he beheld the Saviour, was painted by both Murillo and Vandyck, and both introduced the kneeling figure of Saint Monica. Murillo’s picture is in the Museum of Madrid; Vandyck’s made a part of a private gallery in England.

A picture frequently seen and known as the Vision of Saint Augustine illustrates the legend that, as the saint walked on the seashore, he saw a child who, having dug a hole in the sand, was filling it with water. When the saint asked the child what he did, the child replied that he intended to pour all the water of the sea into this hole. When the saint assured him that such a task could never be finished, the child replied, “It is no more impossible to do this than for thee to comprehend and explain the mystery on which thou art meditating!”

One is surprised that this subject has been so many times painted. It is not especially attractive, and suggests no deep sentiment. A bishop appears to be advising a child as to his manner of making a mud pie. If one does not know the legend it is extremely commonplace, and when it is known the picture has no spirituality. Murillo made the most attractive picture of it that I know, but the subject seems unworthy of his brush; it is now in the Gallery of the Louvre.

'The Vision of Saint Augustine' by GarofaloThere is a picture of this Vision by Garofalo, in the National Gallery. Saint Augustine is seated on one side of the beach, where his books are laid on a rock before him. Behind him is Saint Catherine, and they regard the beautiful child attentively. He is beside his hole on the sand, and points to the sea, which he intends to pour into it. In the distance, on the beach, is the figure of an ecclesiastic, said to represent Saint Stephen. Beyond the stretch of water a varied landscape is seen, and in the clouds is a vision of the Madonna and Child, with numerous angels, some of whom are playing on musical instruments.

Vandyck and Rubens also painted pictures of this Vision, but even their genius failed to impart mysticism or poetry to the scene. Vandyck’s picture is in the Church of Saint Augustine, in Antwerp.

The tomb of Saint Augustine, in the Cathedral of Pavia, is the most magnificent and interesting work of art connected with his name. Its author is unknown, but it is attributed with some authority to Bonino da Campiglione, and is said to have been begun in 1362. It is possible that Cicognara and the Jacobelli were employed on it. There might well have been a small army of sculptors engaged in the work, since it is embellished with two hundred and ninety figures. The story of Saint Augustine’s life is told in bas-reliefs. There are many statues of important saints, as well as those of the Evangelists and apostles. The effigy of the saint lies on a bier, and exquisitely beautiful angels are folding the grave clothes about it. Six centuries have but slightly discoloured the fine, white marble of which this tomb is made.

Saint Gregory, both saint and pope, better known as Gregory the Great, was of a patrician family, and his mother, while he was still an infant, was impressed by a dream, or vision, with a firm belief that her son would be a Pope. She accordingly endeavoured to fit him by his education for the exalted office of the Head of the Church.

Until his father’s death, however, Gregory was a lawyer by profession, but when he came into his inheritance he devoted himself to charities, and founded a monastery and hospital.

When his predecessor, Pope Pelagius, died, Gregory refused to be made Pope, but was forced by the will of the Church, the people, and the emperor, – for all these were in accord, – to accept this exalted office, in which he became famous in various directions.

Gregory was the first to preach the doctrine of purgatory; he it was who instituted the celibacy of the clergy, who first sought to Christianise England, who carefully regulated the forms for church services, arranged the music of the chants known by his name, and superintended the instruction of priests and choristers in order that they should properly conduct themselves, and teach the people decency and order in worship.

In short, there have been few Popes, indeed few men in any position, whose influence has been so far-reaching, in so many avenues, as that of Gregory the Great, and few whose lives are more interesting than his. The story of his seeing the Saxon children in Rome, and undertaking to Christianise England, that of the processions organised by him to pray for the stay of the plague, and the vision of the archangel sheathing his sword above the tomb of Hadrian, and many of his works as priest, monk, and Pope, present him to us as a man of wonderful spiritual power, as do the words of Dante, when, writing more than six centuries after the death of Gregory, he thus describes the potency of his prayers:

“Fervent love
And lively hope, with violence assail
The kingdom of the heavens, and overcome
The will of the Most High: not in such sort
As man prevails o’er man; but conquers it,
Because ’tis willing to be conquer’d; still,
Though conquer’d, by its mercy, conquering.”

The numerous pictures of Saint Gregory as a single figure can usually be recognised from the dove, his peculiar symbol. He is frequently seen in the pontifical robes, with the tiara and crosier with the double cross; all of which might be given to any Pope, but the dove, or a book, or an angel playing some musical instrument, indicate that Gregory the Great is the Pope represented.

Saint Gregory is pictured in various scenes which illustrate his charity, gentleness, and other Christian virtues, but the three most impressive subjects connected with him are founded on legends, and are known as the Supper, the Mass of Saint Gregory, and the Miracle of the Brandeum.

He was accustomed to have twelve poor men invited to his table, – in remembrance of the number of the Disciples, – and on one occasion he counted thirteen; he asked his steward why there were more than usual present, and although the man counted again and again he could see but twelve. When the supper was over, the Pope approached the stranger, asking “Who art thou?” and the man replied, “I am one whose necessities thou hast often relieved; my name is the Wonderful, and God will grant thy prayers, for my sake!”

In the Chapel of Saint Barbara, in the Church of San Gregorio Magno, in Rome, there is a table, said to be that which the Pope used when he entertained the twelve poor men. A statue of Saint Gregory is also here, and is said to have been begun by Michael Angelo, and finished by Cordieri. Two frescoes in this chapel represent the Supper, and the scene where the saint met the blond children in the Forum, whom he called angels, and who suggested to him the thought of sending missionaries to England.

In some pictures of the Supper, the stranger is represented as an angel, visible to the Pope alone. Veronese, in his fresco in Santa Maria del Monte, in Vicenza, makes him like Christ in the dress of a pilgrim, and Vasari, in his picture in the Bologna Gallery, also portrays the unknown like the Saviour. This picture is Vasari’s masterpiece, and represents a scene of great legendary interest; it also contains portraits of men who were famous in Vasari’s time, but the fact that the Pope in this picture is a likeness of Clement VII. makes the picture worthless as a representation of the Supper of Saint Gregory; called by any other name, it would be more valuable.

The Mass of Saint Gregory is not a pleasant picture. The legend runs that on an occasion when Saint Gregory was officiating at the celebration of the Eucharist, some one doubted the real presence of Christ, and, in answer to the prayer of the saint, the crucified Saviour, with all the instruments of his suffering around him, appeared upon the altar. In the Church of San Gregorio this Vision of the Crucified is represented in the sculpture on the altar, in the chapel of the saint.

The legend of the Brandeum relates that the Empress Constantia begged Gregory to give her some portion of the relics of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, but he, not daring to disturb the remains of these saints, sent her a portion of the linen which had enveloped the remains of Saint John the Evangelist. Constantia rejected this gift with scorn. Then Gregory, desiring to prove that the faith of the believer is the power that works miracles, rather than the virtue of any special relic, placed the cloth on the altar, and, after praying, pierced it with a knife, and blood flowed from it as from a living body.

'The Miracle of the Brandeum', by Andrea SacchiOver the altar of Saint Gregory in Saint Peter’s there is a mosaic copy of a picture of this miracle, after a painting by Andrea Sacchi, which hangs in the Gallery of the Vatican. Sacchi’s pictures are simple and direct in treatment, grave in tone, and luminous in colour. He was not a great artist, but he imparted an element of interest to his works, which secures them attention.

In this painting of the Brandeum, the altar is at the side of the picture, and the Pope, turning toward his attendants and the ambassadors of the empress, has pierced the linen, from which the blood flows. The astonishment of the witnesses is well portrayed; the dove hovers near the head of Saint Gregory, and all the details of the work are well rendered.

There are few pictures of Saint Gregory alone, or such as represent the incidents of his life, in European galleries, but in pictures of the Madonna, and of scenes from the life of Christ, he appears with the other Latin Fathers, as in the Enthroned Madonna in the Venetian Academy, of which I have spoken.

In funeral chapels the decorations frequently remind one that the doctrine of purgatory originated with Saint Gregory, who is represented as praying, while angels release souls from the flames of hell. He was believed to have thus released the soul of the Emperor Trajan by prayer, and, as we have seen, Dante attributed to his prayers the power to “overcome the will of the Most High.”

In Byzantine representations of the Greek Fathers, or Doctors of the Church, they are placed in much the same relation to Christ as are those of the Latin Church. Having no distinguishing symbol, – each bearing a book or scroll, – the name is necessarily inscribed near each Father. The chief examples of this representation are those of the dome of the baptistery of Saint Mark, in Venice. and of the Cathedral of Monreale, Palermo.

Saint John Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed, is first among these Doctors. and in the church in Venice which bears. his name there is a celebrated picture, in which he is enthroned, and surrounded by six saints, Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Catherine, Saint Agnes, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Augustine, and Saint Liberale. This is called the masterpiece of Sebastian del Piombo, who was not eminent in composition, and lacked delicacy and spirituality. Even here the female saints are conscious of their personal attractions, and the male saints also have a hint of affectation in their bearing; this is especially true of Saint John the Baptist. In short, while this is an effective picture, it lacks dignity and delicacy, and, while spirited, it is imbued with impetuosity, rather than with calm and commanding force. In passing I must remark that in this Church of San Giovanni Crisostomo is the last picture signed by that genuinely religious painter, Giovanni Bellini, when he was eighty-four years old. It represents Saint Jerome, Saint Christopher, and Saint Augustine in a mountainous landscape. I know of no pictures of Saint Basil the Great, Saint Athanasius, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, and Saint Cyril, sometimes named as a fifth Greek Doctor, that demand our consideration.