The present work is one of Van Dyck's rare modelli; it was executed in his preferred grisaille technique, in preparation for a prestigious, public commission, the first he was to receive on his return to Antwerp after a stay in Italy of some six years. He had left Antwerp in 1621, trained by Rubens and already famous (a fine example of his 'early' style was sold by Christie's in New York on 29 January 1998).
Van Dyck shared the commission for the church of the Augustinian Fathers in Antwerp with Rubens and Jordaens. Rubens was to execute his famous Virgin adored by Saints for the main altar, and van Dyck and Jordaens were requested to paint altarpieces for the two lateral aisles. Rubens altarpiece was installed in June 1628, and it is to be assumed that van Dyck and Jordaens works were put in place at about the same time. Van Dyck's Saint Augustine in Ecstasy, still in situ, has been described by Julius Held, the foremost connoisseur of the Flemish baroque, as 'one of [his] most inspired altarpieces'. Two Italian altarpieces - Titian's Assunta and Raphael's Saint Cecilia - lie at its source.
The importance of van Dyck's altarpiece adds further interest to the preparatory sketch for it; the latter in fact has been in the public domain only since 1979 when it supplanted the sketch in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which is now considered a copy. Only Erik Larsen has reservations about its primacy. Indeed he has strongly disagreed that it is superior to the Oxford sketch, adding : '... if this painting [the present work] is autograph, which is not above doubt, it might rather be a first attempt later discarded by the master'.
However, Dr. Christopher Brown considers it to be 'the modello, which he [van Dyck] showed to the Augustinian friars ... and from which he worked'. For Julius Held, it is 'the original sketch', which received the accolade of inclusion in the select van Dyck exhibition in Washington in 1990-91. Dr. Brown has let it be known that he would like to borrow the sketch for the exhibition to be held in Antwerp and London in 1999 to celebrate the quatercentenary of van Dyck's birth.
Van Dyck shows Saint Augustine, one of the Four Fathers of the Latin Church, supported by two angels adoring the Trinity, which is accompanied by a choir of angels. Saint Augustine wears a monk's habit, in reference to the monastic rule inspired by his writings, and a bishop's pluvial (his mitre is at his feet) as he had been Bishop of Hippo. Also adoring the vision above is a kneeling woman to be identified as Saint Augustine's mother, Saint Monica - an examplar of womanly saintliness - who, together with her son, shortly before her death experienced a mystic revelation, the 'Vision at Ostea' described by Saint Augustine in his Confessions. It is likely that the vision inspired in a general way the subject of the altarpiece. To the right of the Saint is a kneeling figure adoring him: this is likely to be Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, venerated by Antwerp Augustinians as a medieval friar of the Order, who was famous as preacher, confessor and as a visitor of the sick, the dying and the poor and the destitute. However, this figure has also been identified as the friar who paid van Dyck 600 florins for the altarpiece, Marinus Jansenius.
Van Dyck shows one of the angels above holding a sceptre crowned with an eye, an emblem of God's wisdom; with the other hand he holds a circlet intended to represent either eternity or the heavens. To the right of Christ the Saviour is an equilateral triangle, which in the altarpiece would be inscribed Jehovah, thus symbolizing God the Father.
In the altarpiece van Dyck was to introduce more emblems held by the angels, but his main change was to be to the pose of Saint Monica, who was given a subsidiary role but in compensation was depicted frontally. Van Dyck also eleborated references to the Saint's position as bishop and to his writings. The mitre was moved to join a pile of books and a crozier in the left hand corner before Saint Monica.