In an item posted here in January about Fra Angelico’s painting, Conversion of St Augustine, I mentioned that Hugo van der Goes had referenced the work in his Monforte Altarpiece. At that time I wasn’t aware that Hugo had done the same in two other paintings he produced following his ‘breakdown’, thought to have been after 1480.
In yesterday’s post I pointed out the crib connection to St Augustine in Hugo’s painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds and the link to Fra Angelico’s painting of Augustine’s conversion. But there’s more. Hugo’s composition is actually based on the scene painted by Fra Angelico – a conversion process in itself.
Sometimes described as Old Testament prophets, the two men either side of the frame pulling back the green curtain are Hugo van der Goes (left) and Thomas Vessem, Prior of the Rood Klooster, who helped care for Hugo following his breakdown.
Hugo has depicted himself as the peacock, a symbol of pride, while Thomas Vessem represents the humble ‘desert father’, standing at the entrance of his cave – a ‘“little nook” – in Fra Angelico’s scene. Augustine and his friend Alipius (two converts) are matched by the two shepherds entering the cave where Jesus is born, symbolising two conversos entering the Rood Klooster monastery.
As for Hugo being seen as a figure of pride, he can also be viewed at the Prodigal Son whose father welcomed him and instructed his servants to bring out the best robe and put it on his son.
Notice also that Hugo and Thomas Vessem are each embedded in the lower corners of the picture – another example of Hugo’s fascination for the words of Thomas à Kempis: ““I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.”
To enable to see and recognise some of the iconography in Rembrandt’s etching shown above, the viewer has to adopt a different view and turn the work 90 degrees clockwise. Was this Rembrandt’s own idea or did he take his lead from elsewhere? As the etching is primarily focused on the work of Hugo van der Goes, so is the answer. Rembrandt has imitated a feature from Hugo’s painting titled Adoration of the Shepherds, which he produced after recovering from his ‘breakdown’ and attempt to self-harm.
The painting records the Nativity of Jesus – the occasion when Christ became incarnate, the Word made flesh. The scene also became a life-changing occasion for the magi and shepherds who were called to witness, pay homage and proclaim the birth of Christ. The magi returned home a different way (conversion) and the shepherds repeated all they had seen and heard to everyone they could.
Another conversion narrative Hugo has blended into the scene is that of St Augustine. Like Hugo, he wrestled with God at times until one day he heard a child’s voice singing and repeating the words, “Pick it up and read it”. This prompted Augustine to pick up a Bible and open it. The first passage his eyes settled on was part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, urging them to be Children of the Light:
“Let us live decently as people do in the daytime: no drunken orgies, no promiscuity, or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy. Let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ; forget about satisfying your bodies with all their cravings” (Romans 13:13-14).
Augustine’s heart was flooded with light and he changed his ways. He was baptised a Christian and later became bishop of Hippo.
The painting not only represents the Nativity of Jesus and the conversion of Augustine but also the rebirth and “turnaround” of Hugo van der Goes after his breakdown.
This experience of being overcome by heavenly light can been seen in the top right corner of Hugo’s painting. So powerful is the light and the angel’s message that one of the shepherds is bowled over. Another is brought to his knees. This is mirrored in the main scene. One shepherd is depicted on his knees while the other is almost bowled over.
So where is the clue that Hugo has referred to Augustine’s moment of conversion? It’s within the crib, but the crib and all it holds requires to be turned 90 degrees anti-clockwise (going back in time, so to speak), as Rembrandt did with his etching.
When turned round the cloth on which the infant is placed takes on the outline form of Augustine, sitting on the ground and reading his bible. The open pages of the book are seperated by the child’s right arm, resting on the spine as a bookmark. This is the reference to the child (the Word) instructing Augustine to pick up the book and read it – the word of God. The pointed corner fold on the cloth above the infant’s left hand represents a bishop’s mitre. The other end of the cloth overlapping the edge of the crib and pointing downwards represents the descent into darkness and imprisonment, hence the crib’s cage-like features.
Hugo has adapted the shape of the Augustine symbol from the painting by Fra Angelico, Conversion of St Augustine. He also repeats the posture in his painting Death of the Virgin, portraying himself seated on the floor in the same way. Notice as well the similarity in colours of the garments, and the extended ‘tail’ feature which is repeated in the crib detail.
Finally, the turnaround feature can be linked to the Thomas à Kempis quote: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.” – often adapted to a shorter version: “In a little corner with a little book”.
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).
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.