Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Saint Augustine in his Study.

The painting, Saint Augustine in his Study or The Vision of St Augustine, is one of seven painted canvas panels by the Venetian artist, Vittore Carpaccio (c.1455 – c.1523), housed in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice.  They were composed, painted and completed in the early part of the sixteenth century.  Since early Mediaeval times, Dalmatia and Venice had enjoyed excellent trading relationships.  Upon the Venetian conquest of the Dalmatian region, the Dalmations had started to emigrate to their conquering city, and were renamed the Schiavoni.   Upon the formation of a brotherhood in the 1450s, the Sciavoni built a large meeting house, the Scuola di San Giorgio.   In order to decorate the interior of the meeting house, the Schiavoni commissioned Vittore Carpaccio, a Venetian painter, and one-time student of Gentile Bellini.  The final paintings were and still are housed in situ, which perhaps is one of the reasons for which Carpaccio remains unknown, and somewhat neglected, outside of his native Venice.  The seven paintings were of formed part of two cycles of the three saints of the Dalmations, being Sts. George (the patron of the scuola), Tryphon, and Jerome.   Carpaccio seems to have taken his inspiration for the his paintings from The Golden Legend, one of the most popular books and widely circulated books of Medieval Europe, having been published in Latin, Italian, Czech, French and German.  The choice of St. Jerome would have been of great significance to the Schiavoni, for it was in Dalmatia that Jerome was said to been born.
Depicted in the third of the three panels depicting the life of Saint. Jerome, is not Jerome himself but a portrayal of Saint Augustine, seated at his desk, about to write a letter.  Augustine and Jerome are often portrayed as being two of the four Latin doctors of the (Early) Christian church, together with Ambrose and Pope Gregory I.  In The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, the story is recounted telling of how initially Jerome was tainted by reading pagan literature, the works of Cicero and Plato, however, under threat of being flogged reading such works, he begged for mercy and converted to Christianity.  The story has certain parallels to that of Augustine, who himself tells of how he already was a follower of Manichaen thoughts for a number of years before converting. It might be speculated that Jerome was initially of a similar persuasion to Augustine, for the teachings of Plato were closely linked in ideology to those of the Gnostics.  Indeed the writings of Plato were found amongst the Gnostic Gospels, reinforcing the relevance which Plato will have held as part of their teachings and theology. 

The preliminary drawing by Vittore Carpaccio - now housed in the British Museum.

A small initial sketch of this painting exists in the British Museum, showing a number of the themes, ideas, and objects within the room to be much the same.  Also located in London, in the National Gallery, one finds a painting of Saint Jerome in his study, painted by Antonello da Messina. The painting, dating from c. 1475, is in keeping with the popular style of Flemish painting, yet was painted and displayed in Venice.  It seems highly likely that this would have been seen, and probably admired by Carpaccio. This Flemish influence was also to alter the painting technique and style of Carpaccio and his contemporaries, by the introduction of painting in oils to Venice.  Furthermore, this style was to introduce Flemish devices into the composition of their paintings; including objects such as books, animals, scientific instruments painted in sumptuous detail and imbued with meanings, implicit and explicit to the viewer.
Augustine and his surroundings are seen as contemporary to those of the originally intended audience; subject and setting being more fifteenth century than fifth century.  Augustine himself, author of the Confessions (the first recognised autobiography) and City of God, came from Hippo in North Africa.  Here he is portrayed not as North African but as a Venetian scholar, a Humanist, possibly even bearing the likeness of Basilios Bessarion, surrounded by books of learning, objects of science and with a faithful dog.  His clothes are not in the usual colours of a holy man; the usual purple or cardinal red which represented venerated men of the cloth, but in predominantly black and white (with just a small amount of red material at the cuffs of his sleeves, and at his feet). This use of black and white has been suggested by scholars as representative of the colours of ink on parchment, and writing; a medium for which both Augustine and Jerome were highly prolific.  Coupled with these books however, are objects of devotion, and the bishop’s regalia such as the crosier, the mitre, etc; reminding the viewer of Augustine’s position and office. 
The Renaissance, recognised now as it was then as being a time of great learning, allowed the wealthy and intelligent to expand their horizons beyond the stifling nature that Christianity had imposed in the previous centuries.  Not just following the later reformation of the church, but the resurgence of interest and appreciation for classical, pagan ideas, literature, and imagery which for many centuries had been condoned and proscribed by the Church.  As referred to above, The Golden Legend, referred to stories of the saints that were both prevalent in local folklore but also in apocryphal texts, and stories, some of whose original sources are now lost to us.  In order for these ideas not to be condoned, a balance had to be made between maintaining a “healthy interest” in such pagan ideas, and not to risk excommunication and possible execution and condemnation for heresy.  A symbolic reconciliation of these often considered opposing forces and ideas is found in the centre of the painting, a statue of the Saviour and a classical statuette of Venus nearby mirroring the others gesture, tacitly recognising and acknowledging the other.  The music scores again, showing the balance between sacred and profane; one being a popular folk song of the period, and the other being a sacred hymn.

Saint Augustine in his Study - the final work as seen in Venice today.

Basilios Bessarion (c. 1403-1472) upon whom the likeness of Augustine could well be based, was the nominal Latin Patriarch of Constantinople and a bishop.  Bessarion was born in Anatolia, and was educated in Constantinople.  He soon after became a monk, and as well being a man of considerable knowledge and intelligence sought to unify the Western Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the mid fifteenth century.  In 1445, having leant his support to the Catholic church, the Pope appointed him as a cardinal, and Bessarion came to reside in Italy.  His palazzo in Rome was a centre for the teaching and propagating of the new Humanist learning, and therein he allowed it to be used as a centre for Greek scholars and refugees.  He was to become their patron, by encouraging and commissioning the translations of Greek manuscripts into Latin; thereby introducing Greek ideas and scholarship and making them available to the Western Europe.  Previously, ideas had primarily spread through merchants and trade routes, and the conquest of nations; leading to, and in some cases, encouraging the growth and spread of heretical doctrines and unorthodox ideas.  This new learning was sanctioned by the Church, and played an important role in the birth of the Renaissance. Bessarion collected numerous codices and manuscripts, which he later donated to the Venetian senate. This vast collection was to become an integral part early formation of the Biblioteca Marciana (the Library of St Mark’s), Venice’s first lending library.
The painting contains a further reference to Bessarion, in the presence of an astrolabe amongst the effects in the room.  The astrolabe had been the property of Bessarion, but previously had belonged to a renowned German mathematician and astrologer, Johannes der Königsberger (later called Regiomontanus).  The young Regiomontanus had joined Bessarion’s entourage at a young age, copying mathematical and scientific manuscripts for publication in Latin.  His subsequent works included the first writings on algebra and trigonometry.  He also devised and deigned scientific instruments, and one of them was the aforementioned astrolabe.  Suggestions have been made to suggest that the objects in the painting represent a Vanitas, but there appear to be no discernable motifs to support this statement.  The books in Augustine’s study include missals, and sheets of music; testimony to Augustine’s knowledge and understanding of music and mathematics, as well as the nature of astronomy and the cosmos.  All these sciences act as testament to the inspired Augustine’s intelligence and wisdom.   
Further evident and apparent reference is made to Jerome within the objects in the painting, with two candle basements shaped as lion’s paws recalling another legend of Jerome as recorded in The Golden Legend and the story of the thorns in the lion’s paw.  This also recalls the viewer to the first painting in this cycle, the saint being shown with the lion in a contemporary setting, outside the Scuola. However the question remained, how did a painting of St. Augustine have a more direct connection with the life of Jerome, other than their connection stated above, as being two of the four great doctors of Church.
Carpaccio created a convincing trompe l’oiel in this painting, a relatively old device in art yet seemingly unused for many years.  Carpaccio was to use this device in other paintings as well, and here it is evident, especially in the statue and the niche in the centre of the painting.  A somewhat deceptive quality is discernable in the portals behind the seated figure of Augustine.  One of the windows appears to be showing sunshine shining directly into the room.  Yet, at the same time, both Augustine and his faithful dog appear to gazing into the brightness of sunshine emanating from the right of the panel.  Both pet and master seem transfixed and are aware of something, something unseen, to the right of the panel.  In the late 1950’s, the scholar Helen I. Roberts located a book about the life of St. Jerome which was published in Venice nearly twenty years before Carpaccio completed his painting.  In it she found the apocryphal story of how Augustine was starting to write a letter to Jerome when, as he was putting pen to paper to ask his advice and opinion of the nature of heavenly bliss, a great light shone in the room. The voice of Jerome was then heard, announcing to Augustine that he had passed away and been received by Christ.  Carpaccio clearly used this book, entitled Hieronymus: vita et transitus as another of his sources, choosing for his final image in the series not to depict Jerome himself but to depict a miracle he was believed to have performed, possibly to remind his audience, as well as all subsequent spectators of this fantastic work, that all, like Jerome, will be received into the kingdom of Heaven.

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