Painter and Priest Illustrates Augustine's Confessions
Fr. Bates shows how your calling can find a place in the Augustinian Order
By Sean Reynolds
"I would read a few pages of Augustine’s Confessions, and an image would appear to me," said Fr. Don Bates, O.S.A., as he points toward his painting of a Herculean figure bearing a large glimmering honeycomb atop his shoulders. Titled "Themes Coming Together," the abstract, collage image is accompanied by red hand-written lines from Saint Augustine’s autobiography that begins: "But the abyss of the human conscience lies naked in your EYES…"
This painting is only one among 80 that illustrate the journey of Saint Augustine from childhood to teenage despair through to his adult conversion and redemption. As an Augustinian friar, Fr. Bates sees this collection—begun in 1988—as his gift to the Order that he has served since he professed vows in 1953. Now, nearly 30 years later, he hopes that the collection can be displayed in a permanent home.
The collection, "Wedding of Word and Image: Illustrations of Passages from the Confessions of St. Augustine," is founded on Fr. Bates’ notion that "St. Augustine’s journey reflects our own." In this respect his paintings not only symbolize Augustine’s journey to Christianity, but also "reflect" Fr. Bates’ own interior life.
Fr. Bates, who studied painting at the Catholic University of America, grew the project out of unlikely yet fitting circumstances. In 1988, the 54-year-old Fr. Bates went in for hip surgery and began to receive a series of x-rays in 14 x 18" cardboard covers. These covers offered a ready-made canvas for him on which to explore St. Augustine’s own journey. As the x-ray allowed him to see, literally, his own interior life, so Don would use the 14 x 18" cardboard as window in St. Augustine’s own journey into his spiritual interior.
"I liked the constraint of having to fit within the bounds of the x-ray covers. As I continued the paintings I was lucky to find an x-ray technician who would provide me with free cardboard covers," said Fr. Bates.
Visually the series unites around fragmentation, what Fr. Bates calls a "theme-image" of brokenness and shattering. Viewers will not find direct, literal representations of events in Augustine’s life. Rather, Fr. Bates attempts to "capture" the passion of Augustine’s life in images that capture a personal reaction to his writings. The corresponding quotations from St. Augustine are handwritten into the space of each canvas; however, they are frequently, intentionally illegible. "The images are meant to be illustrative of the words on the printed page," explained Fr. Bates, "so that seeing the images is another form of reading."
In order to capture the depth and breadth of St. Augustine’s journey, Fr. Bates employs a wide variety of media and imagery. For example, in "Know Thyself" (which Fr. Bates is shown holding in the picture on p. 7), a self-portrait is partially obscured by a honeycomb pattern made of a metallic gold wrapping paper. The metallic gold in turn gives way a series of concentric circles in ink and paper. A reflective silver mylar film also appears frequently throughout the series mirroring the face of the viewer and enters him or her personally into the painting.
The first 26 paintings, which Fr. Bates completed from 1988 to 1993, cover the biographical portions of the Confessions leading to Augustine’s baptism. As he worked through the book in chronological Order, Fr. Bates found that the imagery gathered around 12 themes, such as "Knottedness" and "Sweetness Fled/Sweetness Found." Augustine’s description of the scriptures as "sweet honey," for example, gave rise to a motif of golden honeycombs in many paintings.
The series was recommenced in 2003 when Fr. Bates began doing a series of self-portraits that were entered into the imagery of Augustine’s autobiography. Fr. Bates found that the self-portraits added a sense of "the unity of the search for self-knowledge and the search for a knowledge of God."
Aside from very limited exhibitions, Fr. Bates’ collection has not yet had an audience. "I don’t believe most of the Augustinian friars are aware of this project," he said. Currently, the majority of the collection is housed under the care of St. Jude parishioner Jeff Ohner in New Lenox, IL. Four paintings from the series are on display in the Colegio Santa Monica House in Rome.
Having finished the project and now in retirement in Crown Point, IN, Fr. Bates has now put his efforts toward finding a location to permanently display the paintings, ideally within one of the Augustinian parishes or homes. "I hope the Augustinians accept it as a legacy. This is my gift to the Order."
Selected Paintings from "Wedding of Word & Image: Illustrations from The Confessions of St. Augustine":
"I heard your answer, O Lord my God, and from this truth I sucked out a drop of sweetness." Confessions, XIII
"The Secret of Your Face"
"Give thyself to me, give thyself once more to me, I love thee . . . if my love is too small a thing, grant me to love more intensely, I cannot measure to how much my love falls short of sufficiency, that I will run to thy embrace and never be turned away until it is hidden in the secret of your face." Confessions, XIII
"Themes Coming Together"
"But the abyss of the human conscience lies naked in your EYES, O Lord, so would anything in me be a secret even I were unwilling to confess to You? I WOULD BE HIDING YOU FROM MYSELF, BUT NOT MYSELF FROM YOU." Confessions, X
"The All-Seeing Eye of God Theme"
"LOOK and SEE, O my God, whence springs my desire. The unrighteous have told me titillating tales, but have nothing to do with your law. SEE, Father, and have regard to me and SEE that law is what stirs my longing..." Confessions, XI
"Monica's Prophetic Dream"
"In her dream she saw herself standing on a wooden rule and a youth all radiant coming to her cheerful and smiling upon her, whereas she was grieving and heavy with grief... He commanded her to be at peace and told her to observe carefully and she would see that where she was, there was I also. She looked and saw me standing alongside her on the same rule." Confessions, III
"The Drops of My Time..." Text: "But when will the voice of my pen have power to tell all Your exhortations and all Your terror, Your consolations and the guidance by which You have brought me to Your people a preacher of Your word and a dispenser of your Sacrament? Even had I the power to set down all these things duly, the drops of my time are too precious." Confessions, XI
"A Question to Myself"
"I beg you to REVEAL MYSELF TO ME, O my God, so that I may CONFESS the wounded condition I DIAGNOSE in myself... Let me try again, and QUESTION MYSELF more carefully." Confessions, X