Today, 4 May, is the feast day of Saint Monica who died in 387 and who is known for various things but most likely she is known best as the mother of Saint Augustine who became Bishop of Hippo and who died in 430. The latter is not to be confused with Augustine of Canterbury, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, who died about two hundred years later in 605. In addition to being the mother of Augustine, Monica is attributed with a book containing the Rule of Saint Augustine and the cross. She is typically portrayed in art wearing the black habit of the Augustinian sisters.(1)
In commemoration and veneration I am presenting one of a series of frescos by Benozzo Gozzoli portraying her death in Ostia in 387 A.D.(some authorities set her death year as 397) (2). The fresco is located in the Apsidal Chapel of Sant’ Agostino, San Gimignano, Italy. The fresco is part of a series of sixteen fresco’s depicting the life of Saint Augustine. Gozzoli obtained the commission from Fra’ Domenico Strambi, a learned Augustinian monk. The scene depicting the death of Monica is number 12 in the series.(3)
As you view the fresco take note that Saint Augustine is pictured as a monk with shaved head standing with his left foot on the step to the lower left of the death bed. The haloed figure hovering above the death bed represents the child Jesus which the saint beheld in a dream just prior to her death and which gave her great comfort. The small figure of Monica in the circle at the top of the fresco represents her soul which rose to heaven after her death. And, if you look through the window on the right you see what looks like a sailing ship floating in mid-air. This represents the fact that Augustine continued the trip back to Tagaste in North Africa. (4)
I have heard and read the story of Monica’s death many, many times, and one thing always stands out and speaks to me. As she lay dying her children asked her if she was afraid of leaving her body in an alien land (she died in Ostia near Rome but was from North Africa) and she responded:
Nothing is far from God, and I need have no fear that he will not know where to find me, when he comes to raise me to life at the end of the world. (5)
This offers proof that the fruit of theological talent does not fall far from the tree which bore it.
Monica was born in North Africa about 331, of Berber parents. (Berbers are any of the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. The Berbers live in scattered communities across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania). As described by her son, Monica was the model Christian mother who suffered greatly because of her husband Patricius’s immoral and violent behavior and also because of her mother-in-law, who lived with the family and was prone to drinking. With Christian patience and dedication, Monica managed to convince her husband to be baptized. (6)
She also had a constant anxiety about her son, Augustine. Despite the fact that Augustine had prepared for baptism, he was leading a life that was inappropriate for a catechumen. This went on so much that Monica became convinced that the time was not right for his conversion. Then Augustine ran away from home ending up first in Rome and then in Milan where he encountered Saint Ambrose. Monica followed him and was present when her son converted (was baptised). (7)
While awaiting ship at Ostia, the port of Rome, Monica fell ill. Augustine writes : “One day during her illness she had a fainting spell and lost consciousness for a short time. We hurried to her bedside, but she soon regained consciousness and looked up at my brother and me as we stood beside her. With a puzzled look , she asked, “Where was I?” The, watching us closely as we stood there speechless with grief, she said “You will bury your mother here.” (8)
Augustine’s brother expressed sorrow, for her sake, that she would die so far from her own country. After saying it does not matter where you bury my body, she said :All I ask of you is that, wherever you may be , you should remember me at the altar of the Lord” To the question, whether she was afraid at the thought of leaving her body in an alien land , she replied, “Nothing is far from God, and I need have no fear that he will not know where to find me, when he comes to raise me to life at the end of the world.” (9)
Recent excavations at Ostia have uncovered her original tomb. Her mortal remains, however, were transferred in 1430 to the Chruch of Saint Augustine in Rome. (10)
(1) Giorgi, Saints in Art, edited by Stefano Zuffi, Los Angeles 2003. See pp. 279-281.
(3) See this link Brunelleschi Stories of Saint Augustine
(4) Note 1, Giorgi, page 281.
(5) Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2000, page 234, New York, 2001.
(6) Note 1, Giorgi, at p.279.
(8) Lesser, at p, 234