Pre-Medieval Think Tank…
The Four Church Fathers were influential theologians and highly intellectual writers who established from the 4th to the 5th century the foundations of Christianity. Let’s see how we can identify these four guys in pictorial art, based on some of their legends. Their Latin names are Ambrosius, Augustinus, Gregorius and Hieronymus, in English Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory and Jerome. Each of them has its own fairytale legend, and these stories are perfect for recognising them as a group and as individuals.
Their common attributes are books, quills to write with and sometimes a dove, who whispers holy spiritual inspiration into their ears. They are scholars and sitting in their study while writing, reading or discussing; or at least they give the impression that they are in deep thoughts! And they are all saints and you might see the “halo”, which is a symbol of holiness represented by a circle around the head of a saint. Ambrose and Augustine were Bishops, they wear a “mitre” on their head. Gregory was Pope, he wears the papal “tiara”. Jerome was Cardinal and he wears a “galero”, the Cardinal’s hat.
Ambrose (Saint Ambrosius, c.340 – 397) was Bishop of Milan. He is dressed as a Bishop, with a mitre and the pastoral staff. There is a famous legend about Ambrose. When he was in his cradle as a baby, a swarm of bees covered his face and left a drop of honey. That’s the sign of Ambrose’s future ability as an eloquent and sweet-tongued speaker. His attribute is a beehive and he is Patron Saint of beekeepers, candle makers, and Milan. Ambrose is buried in the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, Milan. His feast day is December 7th.
Augustine (Saint Augustinus, c.354 – 430) was a Bishop, like Ambrose, and dressed as such with a mitre and Bishop’s staff. Often Augustine is portrayed with a child with a spoon in his hand. According to the legend, Augustine was walking along a beach one day when he meets a child trying to empty the sea with a spoon into a hole in the sand. When Augustine asked the child if he would ever succeed, the child replied: “Certainly before you will understood the essence of God”. Augustine is also often depicted with a flaming heart, as symbol of his love for God. He is the Patron Saint of printers and theologians and his feast day is August 28th.
Gregory (Saint Gregorius, c.540 – 604) was Pope, and thus shown in Papal vestments and with the Papal tiara, the three-tiered crown. Gregory renewed church music, now known as “Gregorian Chanting”. He is the Patron Saint of musicians, choristers and singers, teachers and Popes. His feast day is September 3th and he is buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Jerome (Saint Hieronymus, c.347 – 420), was Cardinal and is depicted with the crimson Cardinal’s attire and hat, or just with the cardinal’s hat when he is depicted as a hermit in the wilderness, desert or cave, when Jerome lived for a few years a life of penitence. He is most famous for translating the Old and New Testament from Hebrew and Greek into the “Vulgate”, the simplified Latin Bible version, which became the official version of the Bible for over thousand years. Jerome is mostly depicted together with a lion. There is a well-known legend in which St. Jerome drew a thorn from a lion’s paw. The beast became his companion wherever Jerome went. It is the symbol of compassion conquering brute force. Jerome is the Patron Saint of translators, librarians and teachers. His feast day is September 30 and he is buried in the Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
Looking at the paintings in this article, we see Church Fathers who lived from the 4th to the 6th century, but dressed as Church officials from the 16th and 17th century. This imagery appeals probably more to the contemporary viewer than some ancient monk-style non-elaborate dressed men from the pre-medieval centuries. Jerome’s Cardinal hat (“galero”) was only worn from the 14th century. The Bishop’s headgear (‘mitre”) as worn by Ambrose and Augustine was only en vogue from the 11th century, and the Pope’s ceremonial headdress (“tiara”) was used from the 8th century.
In the last painting, by Pier Francesco Sacchi and painted around 1516, we see again the Four Church fathers, but now they are hijacking the symbols of the Four Evangelist. As if they want to identify themselves with the writers of the Four Gospels, written 1st and 2nd century, opposed to just being the translators and commentors of these holy books. The symbols of the Evangelists are as follows from left to right: John – Eagle, Luke – Ox, Matthew – Angel, and Mark – Lion. The animals are under the table, the angel peeps in between two of the Church fathers. The lion on the right bottom corner is therefore Mark’s lion and not Jerome’s! The Church Fathers from left to right are Augustine, Gregory, Jerome and Ambrose.