In 1845 Ary Scheffer painted an episode recounted by Saint Augustine in his Confessions. The Church Father recalled sitting with his mother Monica shortly before her death and discussing the kingdom of heaven. The picture, for which Scheffer used his own mother as the model for Saint Monica, became very popular, and in 1854 he painted this version, using a previous portrait sitter, Mrs Robert Hollond, for Monica. Scheffer’s portrait of Mrs Hollond is also in the National Gallery’s collection.
The artist was known for the expressiveness of his compositions and he created an image of eloquent simplicity in which the holy mother and son sit side-by-side and hand-in-hand staring contemplatively towards heaven whose light bathes them in a sunset glow. He made a picture that is both an image of divine mystery and a portrayal of the love between a mother and son.
This painting of 1854 shows Saint Monica and Saint Augustine, mother and son, discussing the kingdom of heaven. In Book Nine of his Confessions Augustine described how, shortly before his mother’s death, the two of them stood alone at a window, talking of spiritual matters: ‘we were seeking between ourselves in the presence of the Truth, which You are, of what nature the eternal life of the saints would be’.
In 1845 Ary Scheffer first painted this spiritual moment in which mother and son sit side-by-side, Monica holding Augustine’s hand in hers, as they raise their eyes to heaven and consider its mysteries. The model for Saint Monica was his own mother, the miniature painter Cornelia Lamme, and the painting became one of Scheffer’s most popular compositions. He later made other versions of it, and in this one the model for Monica is said to be Mrs Robert Hollond, whose portrait (also in the National Gallery’s collection) Scheffer had painted in 1851.
The calm and tenderness between the two saints was hard won. The family came from Algeria and, although Monica was a devout Christian, her husband Patricius was a pagan and Augustine grew up outside the faith. By his own account, the young Augustine lived a dissolute life: stealing fruit; mixing with rowdy and boastful youths; and setting up home with his mistress. In Christian legend Monica wept every night for her son’s sins and prayed for his conversion. Eventually she succeeded and her son was baptised.
Scheffer’s painting therefore has a powerful back-story. Scheffer stresses the closeness of the emotional and spiritual bond by stripping the picture of non-essentials. Saint Augustine described his mother as dressed ‘in woman’s garb truly, but with a man’s faith, with the peacefulness of age, full of motherly love and Christian piety!’ and this is what Scheffer paints. Mother and son are clothed in the simplest of Roman gowns with a background of undecorated masonry, soft blue sky and sea. The light that shines on them is both that of the evening sunset and of heaven itself.
Monica is herself in the evening of her days: her eyes are deep-set, her face somewhat pallid with pronounced cheekbones. It is clear she is ailing and her gaze is on the eternal life to come. A visitor to Scheffer’s studio in Paris in 1855 saw the painting there and described how Monica looks upwards ‘in rapt and devout thankfulness’ and seems to see ‘the face of God without a veil. But the son’s features are dark and proud, still questioning, still doubting, not yet humbled into faith’.
The simplicity and effectiveness of the composition allows Scheffer to blur the boundary between the love of God and the love between a mother and her son.
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