Consecration of St Augustine by Jaime Huguet

Jaime Huguet

Consecration of St Augustine, c.1463–70s, Tempera, stucco reliefs, and gold leaf on wood, 250 x 193 x 9.5 cm, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya; Purchased 1927, 024140-000, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Not Under Compulsion but Willingly

Commentary by

1 Peter tells the elders that they must agree to take care of God’s people, and that they must see this as a calling from God, not as an office carrying prestige or financial reward. Their calling is not to be elevated above the flock, but to be given over to the flock’s well-being.

The gorgeous painted altarpiece of Augustine’s consecration as bishop of Hippo rather undermines that point. The fifteenth-century artist has depicted a contemporary (rather than fourth-century) consecration of great lavishness. The consecrating bishops and the bishop-to-be are wearing richly embroidered robes, and their mitres and gloves are jewelled. The ‘flock’ are conspicuous by their absence, unless represented by the face peering through at the far right of the picture; but even he is probably a portrait of a donor, rather than a symbol of the people to whom a bishop is called. Augustine’s face is serious, but there is no doubt that this is a man entering into a great office, with pomp and ceremony.

Augustine himself tells a different story. In a sermon, preached to his people after he had been their bishop for many years, Augustine describes how he was seized upon and ordained priest with no preparation and little opportunity to discern a calling. ‘A servant ought not to oppose his Lord’, Augustine writes, ruefully, very much in the spirit of 1 Peter 5:6: even bishops are humble ‘under the mighty hand of God’ (Ramsey 2007: 407).

He was bishop of Hippo for over thirty years, describing it as a task compelled by love—of God and of God’s people. As the ambitious young Augustine takes up this yoke as the servant of an obscure community at the edge of the Empire, as the intellectual turns his hand to the education of his people, as the contemplative takes on the management of a divided and unruly province, Augustine lives out an exegesis of 1 Peter 5.

 

References

Brown, Peter. 1967. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (London: Faber and Faber)

Ramsey, Boniface (ed.). 2007. St Augustine: Essential Sermons, Sermon 355, trans. by Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press)