The renowned Saint Augustine (354-430) was bishop of Hippo and one of the Four Latin Fathers of the Church. He is shown in bishop’s robes, acting out the popular story in his legend that recounts of how, while meditating on the Trinity, as he walked on the seashore, he came across a child who explained that he was trying to empty the sea into a hole in the sand. In answer to Augustine’s remonstration, the child - a divine messenger - points out that what he was doing was no more futile than the bishop’s trying to fathom the mystery of the Trinity. Not so evocative, but evidence of the story’s popularity in Antwerp early in the 17th century, is a print by Adrianus Collaert (c. 1560-1618).
The ancient monastic order of Saint Augustine was only re-established in Antwerp in 1608. Rubens’s greatest work for it - the high altarpiece for its church (too large to be removed from the Antwerp Museum during its current refurbishment) - was painted some twenty years later. Earlier, soon after his return from Italy in 1608, he had painted the saint as one of the Fathers of the Church in the altarpiece of The Real Presence of the Eucharist for St Paul’s Church in the city, and around 1615 he executed for an unknown patron a painting showing the saint in the habit of his order, kneeling between Christ and the Virgin.
The present sketch, hitherto unrecorded, was most likely painted at some time between these two large-scale works, c. 1610-1612. The original, rectangular support has been dated dendrochronologically by Ian Tyers to have been ready for use by the 1590s. The composition was engraved in reverse later in the 17th century by Alexander Voet II (1637-1689) (fig. 1; Hollstein XLII, p. 56). Arnout Balis, head of the Rubenianum in Antwerp, has suggested that the print is after a lost painting by Rubens for which the present lot is a modello.
An intriguing feature is revealed by X-radiography, which shows the head of a young woman painted on the panel used the other way up. The head fluoresces strongly and much more so than the image of the saint and it seems not directly to relate to any known work by the artist. But its oval contours recall the morphology of the artist’s favored female types in his early years.
Rubens' formulation of the legend, which is here seemingly first devised, would later inform his altarpiece for the Augustinian church in Prague, a late work now in the Národni Galeri v Praze. It also inspired Gaspar de Crayer - a near contemporary of Rubens - in his depiction of the saint now in the Prado Museum, and more evidently another work also in the Prado and described there as from the school of Rubens. Even more directly derivative, but in which the saint’s mitre is held by an angel beside him, is the painting which forms part of the surround of Ribera’s great Immaculate Conception of 1635 in the church of the Barefoot Augustinians in Salamanca. The Ribera was commissioned by the Conde de Monterrey, then viceroy of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, to be the main element of the high altarpiece of the funerary church of the convent he founded beside his palace in Salamanca. The high altarpiece was only assembled and put in place later in the century. Though now untraced, it is clear that the composition of the finished painting, for which the present work was preparatory, was hugely influential to artists of the following generations.