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Augustine as seen through art

19 July 2013

But this book about him has no pictures  at all, says a puzzled Cally Hammond

Creating Augustine: Interpreting Augustine and Augustinianismin the later Middle Ages
E. L. Saak
OUP £68
Church Times Bookshop £61.20 (Use code CT469 )

WHEN I read this book to review it, a dialogue emerged with the book I was (and still am) writing. I finished reading Creating Augustine just as I completed my translation of Book 8 of the Confessions of St Augustine - the climactic moment of the drama in the garden, the sing-song children's chant, "Pick it up and read it, pick it up and read it!"

So, as I revisited the story of Augustine (which, despite his vast output, is still defined principally by the Confessions), I also learned from this book how that story was passed on down the generations, and who became the guardians of that story.

We know how this sort of thing works from the example of the gospel. There is the life of Jesus itself; then there is the story as his first followers recorded it; and finally there are the generations who take that story to heart and carry it on - in other words, us. So, too, with Augustine. There is the life he lived; then his own record of his encounter with God; and finally the carrying forward of that story.

And in both cases there are battles between heretics and orthodox. Who are the true heirs? Is it the Augustinian order of hermits (OESA) or the Augustinian Canons (CRSA)? Saak traces the development of the legend of Augustine, and draws the reader expertly in by expanding the field of what we usually think of as narrative. Instead of concentrating on the documents alone - the records and writings - he introduces the reader to a field of theological instruction most familiar from the stained glass of our churches. He gives a comprehensive analysis of artistic representations of the saint's life: in stained glass, fresco, tomb decoration, and manuscript drawings.

Now comes the very big "but" - not a single illustration of any kind is provided within the book itself. There is a jacket illustration from the 15th century Historia Augustini, and that's it. The interpretation of non-verbal media is the heart of this book, interpreting the iconography of Augustine's life as it came to be appropriated by the hermits and canons who named themselves after him.

Saak excuses this absence on the grounds of cost and convenience; but even a single representative picture for each image-cycle would have helped. It is absurd to publish a book centred on visual methods of disseminating the saint's story without any illustrations. Footnotes with long complicated references linking to Italian websites that have no English translations are a poor substitute.

The editor should have picked up, even if Saak doesn't know, that "phenomena" is a plural; and have spotted a case of "there" for "their". But some may think that The New English Bible with Apocrapha is divine inspiration, not poor proof-reading.

The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

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