Conversion paths

CONVERSION OF ST AUGUSTINE by Fr Angelico, Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg, France

The Conversion of St Augustine is by the early Renaissance Italian artist Fra Giovanni Fiesole, better known as Fra Angelico. It is a section of a larger type of work described as a Thebaid, which depicts the life of hermits and monks living in the desert, sometimes referred to as the Desert Fathers.

Five of six panels are known to exist and are kept at different locations. It is not known if the sixth panel has survived. The four outside panels show the four original Doctors of the Church, all saints: St Augustine of Hippo, St Ambrose, St Jerome and St Gregory the Great. The date attribute is between circa 1430 and circa 1435.

The Thebaid, particular the section depicting St Augustine’s conversion, has elements which the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes later incorporated into the Monforte Altarpiece (featured in an earlier post this week).

MONFORTE ALTARPIECE (Adoration of the Magi) by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie

For instance, the four Doctors of the Church also appear in the Van der Goes painting, and Augustine’s friend Alypius, the figure with his back to the church wall, is remodelled, given a new identity and placed next to the Temple wall. The peacock, the low fence, the topiary trees, the sheep, and especially Augustine’s position on the ground (matched by the female figure sat on the hill), are all components ‘converted’ from Fra Angelico’s depiction of St Augustine’s conversion.

Which begs the question: did Hugo van der Goes ever make his way to Italy on pilgrimage and have sight of Fra Angelico’s Thebaid?

Fra Angelico was already a painter before becoming a Dominican friar in his mid-twenties. So too was Hugo van der Goes when at the peak of career he joined a monastic community as a lay brother.