St. Augustin – Peter Paulus Rubens

oil on canvas, 232 x 153 cm
Czech Province of the Order of St. Augustine

In the 1740s, Peter Paul Rubens created altarpieces for the St. Thomas Church in Prague, apparently commissioned by the first superior of the Czech province of the Order of St. Augustine. After 1620, the province became one of the centres of the recatholization of the lands of the Bohemian Crown. The House of St. Thomas gained extraordinary power and cultural significance, as well as an exclusive position against other convents of the same order in the Kingdom of Bohemia. The Prague paintings depict the martyrdom of St. Thomas and the founder of the Order, St. Augustine. The first of the paintings depicts the saint’s demise in a convincing manner and at the same time foreshadows his apotheosis. The dramatic effect of the scene was achieved by the dynamic conception of the entire composition, which is built on two opposing diagonals, by the impressive lighting direction, as well as by the depiction of exalted gestures, facial expressions and unnaturally tense movements of the individual figures interacting with each other. In contrast, the canvas St. Augustine on the Sea Shore, which is inspired by the saint’s hagiography, is a more intimate work. The saint leans towards the boy who is reaching out to him with a shell in his right hand. An angel hovers above them with the attributes of one of the Church Fathers who influenced all of Christian Europe with his teachings. He dealt with complex theological issues and one of the central themes for him was the issue of the Holy Trinity. The literary model for the work was the scene when, according to the Legend of the Aurea, God speaks to Augustine through the mouth of a child: ‘Augustine, Augustine, before you understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity, I will pour the whole sea into this hole.’ Familiar renderings of the texture of fabrics, embroideries and other surfaces or depictions of the rising sea accentuate the best of the tradition of Flemish painting and, together with the graduating valences of pastel tones, graded in a wide spectrum of individual colours, which are typical of the late period of Rubens’s work and his masterly conception of atmospheric perspective, give the painting an almost mystical effect.