A newly commissioned portrait celebrates the cultural heritage of one of the most influential thinkers in Church history
By Megan Walsh-Boyle
A new original portrait commissioned by the Office of the President for Villanova’s permanent art collection was unveiled at the second annual Mother Mary Lange Lecture on Nov. 3, 2022. Impressive both in size and the brilliance of its colors, An Unlikely Aquilegia: North African Saint of Hippo is an oil painting on a 48-by-48-inch canvas. Dallas-based artist Vernon Adams depicts St. Augustine, who hailed from North Africa, as a bishop and a man from the indigenous Amazigh tribe.
“We at Villanova wish to advance the conversation on St. Augustine—one of the Church’s greatest writers and thinkers—as an African man,” said University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, ’75 CLAS, in his remarks at the unveiling. “We recognize what it means for the Church and Catholics of African descent to not only acknowledge but also celebrate St. Augustine’s authentic heritage.”
In choosing the artist, it was important to have someone who is Catholic and understood the spirituality the portrait needed to convey, and who is also African American. “This portrait is something we envision to be a part of the narrative that we tell as a University about St. Augustine,” says Tia Noelle Pratt, PhD, assistant vice president for Mission Engagement and Strategic Initiatives. “It’s a beautiful celebration of Blackness that is Catholic, and it’s hugely important because that doesn’t happen too often.”
“We recognize what it means for the Church and Catholics of African descent to not only acknowledge but also celebrate St. Augustine’s authentic heritage.”
The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, ’75 CLAS
Also of import, this portrait renders the saint as a man who appears relatable. To help portray St. Augustine’s humanity, there are pears in the painting that recall an incident of thievery from his youth, and the saint wears a simple crocheted cap that would have been a common headdress for the Amazigh people. Scholars believe that St. Augustine's mother, St. Monica, was Amazigh.
There are many rich and nuanced details that tell a story in this painting. The heart on fire that’s commonly associated with St. Augustine is featured, in addition to a stained glass window with the image of St. Monica, and St. Augustine is wearing a stole decorated with an open book that’s indicative of his scholarship.
But it’s the portrait’s potential to inspire introspection and meaningful conversations that the Rev. Kevin DePrinzio, OSA, PhD, vice president for Mission and Ministry, regards as most significant. “This portrait can really open up opportunities for reflection,” says Father DePrinzio. “We realize the importance of and recognize that one of the greatest—if not the greatest—thinkers in the Church is from Africa. What might St. Augustine say to us in the 21st century?”
Did You Know?
Villanova’s annual Mother Mary Lange lecture is named in honor of the chief founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first permanent congregation of African American women religious in the Catholic Church.