Saturday, August 27, 2016

Saint Monica – The Persistent Mother

Follower of Master of Guillebert de Mets St. Augustine and St. Monica
From Book of Hours
Flemish (Tournai), 1435-1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M357, fol. 194r
Sometimes saints come in pairs, with one usually having an influence on the other.  They may be friends, or perhaps a mentor and mentee, or perhaps they may be family members.  Indeed, on October 18, 2015, we saw the canonization of a husband and wife, Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of another saint, Therese of Lisieux.  In Monica’s case, she is part of a pair and her partner is her son, Saint Augustine.  And it is debatable which of them was the more influential.  For, it was Monica’s steady love, example and, above all, her prayers that helped lead Augustine toward his eventual purpose in life. 

According to Augustine, Monica died at age 56 in November 387.1 This would make the year of her birth 331, just a handful of years after the recognition of Christianity as a valid religion for member of the Roman Empire.  Constantine the Great, who had recognized Christianity, was still Emperor when she was born.  The Roman world, therefore, was still predominantly pagan.  Monica, though, seems to have been born into a Christian family, where she lived in an atmosphere of faith and attention to personal conduct.2
Antonio Vivarini, Marriage of St. Monica
Italian, 1441
Venice, Accademia

As a teenager, however, she was given in marriage to a local official, Patricius, who still worshipped the old Roman and local gods.  In spite of bearing three children it does not seem to have been a happy marriage.  Apparently Patricius was not an easy man to live with and the problem was compounded by the fact that his mother also was not an easy person.  Monica managed to survive unscathed in this uncomfortable situation through her peaceful temperament and through the practice of her.  Eventually, her persistent practice led her husband to conversion toward the end of his life.3 

She also persisted in prayers for the conversion of her children, especially for her brilliant son, Augustine.  Infant baptism was still infrequently used at this time, so Augustine had not been baptized as a child.  Her husband had opposed the suggestion as her grew older, save for one period in which he was quite ill.  But as he managed to recover before the baptism could take place, her husband renewed his opposition to it. 

Benozzo Gozzoli, St. Augustine Leaving His Mother
Italian, 1464-1465_
San Gemignano, Sant'Agostino
Apsidal chapel, Scene 3

Monica then had the sorrow of seeing Augustine adopt a dissolute lifestyle, even as he advanced more and more in his studies.  Restless and dissatisfied with the old gods, but not interested in the Christian vision of God, Augustine drifted until he became involved with the Manicheans.  This was a form of Gnosticism that was an outgrowth of Eastern, especially of Iranian, thinking.  It was very influential in the early years following the recognition of Christianity and was quite a threat to it.  For the Manicheans the cosmos is divided into two equal and warring principles:  light and dark.  The light is good and the dark is evil.  Light is identified with the spirit or the soul, while the darkness is identified with the physical or the body.  Since Christianity also uses the metaphors of light and darkness, it was sometimes not so easy to tell them apart at first.  It is only through the working out of the principles of each that the differences become apparent, for, where Christianity declares that the world of created things, including man, is good in itself and pleases God, Manicheanism held that the world of created things, being physical, is evil.

Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio, Departure of St Augustine
Italian, 1435-1440
Berlin, Staatliche Museen
Augustine remained a Manichean for a considerable time, nine to ten years.  These were the years in which Augustine was climbing the ladder of success in Carthage, Rome and Milan and in which Monica never ceased praying for his conversion.  Eventually, in Milan, her prayers were answered.  Augustine had a profound conversion experience and was baptized at Easter of 387 at the age of 33.

Johann Zick, Baptism of Augustine
German, 1746
Schussenried, Premonstratensian Church of St. Magnus

Following his baptism, he and Monica, his son Adeodato, and other friends resolved to leave Milan and return to North Africa.  Eventually, they arrived at Ostia, the port city for Rome.  While they were staying there, waiting for a ship, Augustus relates a visionary experience that mother and son shared while sitting together at an open window.4  

Ary Scheffer. St. Augustine and St. Monica
French, 1846
Paris, Musee de la vie romantique

A few days later, Monica came down with a fever, probably the malaria for which the area was once infamous.  After a week of suffering she died on November 13, 387.  Before she died she charged Augustine and his friends not to incur the effort of bringing her body back to Africa, but to bury her where she died.  Consequently, she was buried in Ostia.  Later on her body was moved to the church of St. Agostino in Rome in 1430, where it remains.5

Benozzo Gozzoli, Death of St. Monica
Italian, 1464-1465
San Gimignano, Sant'Agostino, Apsidal chapel

Unlike the iconography of St. Augustine, the iconography of St. Monica is not large.  She figures prominently in some of the Augustinian iconography, which is not surprising.  And there is a tradition of paintings in which she stands alone, in her own right.  She is most usually shown wearing the clothing of a widow, often in prayer. 

Piero della Francesca, St. Monica
Italian, ca. 1460
New York, Frick Collection

Francesco Botticini, St. Monica
Italian, late 1480s
Florence, Accademia

Pietro_Maggi, Apparition of the Angel to St.Monica
Italian, 1714
Milan, San Marco

Occasionally she is shown holding a black leather belt, which is sometimes straight and sometimes in a bow.  This represents a legend attached to her name.  
Anonymous, St. Monica
Ceramic panel-tiles
Spanish, 17th century
Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla
She is reported to have had a vision in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to her and gave her a black leather belt, with the promise to give special protection to anyone who would wear it. She is supposed to have passed the belt on to Augustine and others.

The black leather belt became part of the habit (clothing) of members of the order of Augustinian Hermits, which grew out of the rule which Augustine wrote for the monks and nuns of his diocese.6  

In addition, she is sometimes shown as patron saint of women who belonged to a third order associated with the Augustinian Hermits. 
Francesco Botticini, St. Monica Altarpiece
Italian, late 1480s
Florence, Church of Santo Spirito

Most frequently of all, however, Monica is shown in relation to her son.  No doubt this is the imagery that would be most pleasing to both of them.  Her feast day is not celebrated on the day of her death, as is usual, but on August 27th, the day before the feast day of Augustine.

Simon Benedikt Faistenberger.
Madonna and Child with Saints Augustine and Monica
Austrian, 1749
St.Ulrich am Pillersee, Parish Church

Sebastiano Conca, Madonna and Child with Saints Augustine and Monica
Italian, c. 1750
Gaeta, Museo Diocesano

© M. Duffy, 2016
  1.  Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book 9. Translated by Marcus Dods. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 2. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.
  2.  Pope, Hugh, "St. Monica." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 27 Aug. 2016 <>.
  3.  Ibid.
  4.  Augustine of Hippo, Ibid.
  5.  Pope, Hugh, Ibid.
  6.  Holgate, Ian, “The Cult of Saint Monica in Quattrocento Italy: Her Place in Augustinian Iconography, Devotion and Legend”, Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol. 71 (2003), pp. 181-206.

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