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Object of the Month: February 2018

St. Ambrose and St. Augustine

Oil on panel

Gaspar de Crayer

Flemish, 1584–1669

Gaspar de Crayer spent much of his career as a painter for the elite of the Spanish Netherlands. In addition to numerous portraits, he completed a large number of altarpieces. Matthias Depoorter notes: “The motifs that he borrows from the work of Rubens are so specific that people suspect that he had contact with Rubens’s studio.” For example, the figurative influence, coloration, and brushwork of Rubens’s Entombment (figure 1) is also clearly evident in De Crayer’s Deposition (figure 2).

Depoorter goes on to point out that later in De Crayer’s career the influence of Anthony Van Dyck (Rubens most noted pupil) emerges. Critics observe that Van Dyck’s portraits are characterized by a “relaxed elegance.”  But this elegance is enriched by a subtle emotional sentiment that intuitively connects the subject to the viewer. These qualities are readily discerned both in Van Dyck’s Self-Portrait (figure 3) and in De Crayer’s portraits of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine from M&G’s collection.

Ambrose was a revered Greek scholar, poet, lawyer, and orator. Trained in politics and law he was literally thrust into an ecclesiastical life. When Auxentius, Bishop of Milan, died in 374 the Arian heresy was on the rise. During the election for the new bishop a violent outbreak seemed inevitable until the 35-year-old Ambrose stood up in the public square and gave an impassioned speech “exhorting the people to proceed in their choice in the spirit of peace.” Following his plea, the whole assembly took up the cry “Ambrose for Bishop.” Although his election astonished him, he determined to take up the task with vigor. Aware of his theological limitations he embarked on an arduous study of Scripture. He also read extensively the writings of the church fathers, especially Origen and Basil. Before long he was revered by both low and high born as a “good shepherd.” The garments he wears in De Crayer’s portrait symbolize his ecclesiastical station.

Although Ambrose is still counted as one of the great doctors of the Western church, his reputation is overshadowed by his most famous convert, Augustine of Hippo. It is not surprising, therefore, that Gaspar de Crayer would do a companion portrait of Augustine. This work, also part of the M&G collection, was featured as Object of the Month in February 2016.

Augustine acknowledged that Ambrose was the key figure in bringing him to Christ. He records in his Confessions that, “This man of God welcomed me, as a father. As a result, I began to love him, not because of his teaching, but because of his warm and loving personality. I enjoyed hearing him preach, not in order to learn from what he said, but in order to admire and learn to imitate his eloquence. Indeed, I still despised the doctrines he taught. Yet, by opening my heart to the sweetness of his speech, the truth of his teaching began to enter my soul, little by little.”   Ambrose would baptize Augustine on Easter morning in 387.  Soon after Augustine returned to North Africa where he eventually became Bishop of Hippo, ruling in that turbulent African diocese for 34 years until his death in 430.


Donnalynn Hess M&G Director of Education


Published in 2018

Object of the Month: February 2016

St. Augustine

Oil on panel

Gaspar de Crayer

Flemish, 1584–1669


Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

Gaspar de Crayer began his career in the city of his birth, Antwerp. He later moved to Brussels and trained under the artist Raphael Coxie, court painter to Archduke and Duchess Albert and Isabella.  This introduction to the court facilitated a longstanding relationship with the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands. De Crayer eventually did work himself for the Archduke and Duchess and went on to receive the appointment of official court painter to Cardinal-infant Ferdinand and eventually well-known art collector, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. He embraced life in Brussels serving as dean of the Brussels painters’ guild from 1611–1616 and as a member of the city council from 1626–1627. In his later years, he moved to Ghent where he died.

De Crayer spent much of his career fulfilling commissions for altarpieces, however, he also dabbled in portraiture as well. His works show similarities in style and technique to those of Peter Paul Rubens and Rubens’ famous student, Anthony van Dyck (both of whom are represented in M&G’s collection). Today, de Crayer’s works fill world-renown museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museo del Prado in Spain, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The presence of Gaspar de Crayer’s St. Augustine at the Museum & Gallery reveals the breadth and importance of the Old Master collection.

De Crayer’s St. Augustine illustrates the depth of religious fervor Augustine possessed. The flaming heart, depicted here in Augustine’s hand, symbolizes his zeal and devotion for God. The contrast of the dark background draws the viewer’s attention to Augustine’s face where he appears lost in thought. This small dramatic painting was most likely meant for private devotion and to inspire the viewer to the same religious ardor that ruled Augustine’s life.

Known as one of the four eminent Fathers of the Western Church, Augustine of Hippo remains one of the most well-known figures in church history and Christianity. Augustine was born in a province of North Africa in 354 CE where he received an excellent education and excelled in rhetoric and philosophy. His studies exposed him to a wide array of religions and philosophies leading him to live his early years in moral irresponsibility. His mother, Saint Monica, devoutly prayed for her wayward son and saw the answer to her prayers in the form of Saint Ambrose of Milan. Under the teaching and guidance of Ambrose, Augustine converted to Christianity becoming a priest and eventually a bishop. He is perhaps most well-known for his writings, Confessions (an autobiography) and The City of God  as well as his fervent zeal for the spread of Christianity. In art, artists typically portray Augustine in the vestments of a bishop as evidenced in this work by the presence of the crozier (bishop’s staff carried by high-ranking church officials).

Rebekah Cobb, Guest Relations Manager


Published in 2016