About fifty kilometres south of Milan in Italy is the town of Pavia. At least, it is a small town today, but in the Middle Ages it was for centuries the capital of the Lombard Kingdom, and later home to one of the earliest and most illustrious universities in Europe.
Overlooking a quiet, tree-shaded piazza not far from Pavia’s train station is a beautiful church called San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro. The church has much to recommend it. For example, the great late Roman Christian statesman and philosopher, Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius [480 – 524 or 525 A.D.]), is buried in the crypt of this church. But the church’s main claim to fame is that it houses the tomb of St Augustine of Hippo.
St Augustine’s tomb draws many pilgrims to the church every year. There are countless grand European tombs, but few come close to matching the dignity and tender glory of the tomb of St Augustine. Saint Augustine died at Hippo in North Africa, and how his remains were transferred to Italy many centuries later is told elsewhere in this Augnet website.
The church where his remains now rest is San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro - "Saint Peter's with the gold ceiling." It receives this name because of the golden background that was previously part of the roof mosaics of a previous early-Christian wooden church that stood on the site. This gold-painted wooden ceiling of earlier times was noted by the famed Italian humanist writers Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.
A tablet on the right side of the façade of the basilica cites the passage from Il Paradiso where the church was mentioned by Dante. In addition to its reference in this classic book by Dante, there is a scene in one of the chapters of the Decameron by Boccaccio. In a short story of his Decameron Boccacio sets in this church the story of a nobleman named Torello da Strada who was magically brought back to Pavia from the prison of the sultan, Saladin. The sumptuous bed of Thorello, soundly sleeping, is magically transported to San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro, where the sacristan discovers him at the following morning.
The church was the former cathedral of Pavia, restored in the twelfth century. In a fairly common Italian architectural tradition, its external appearance (picture 1 below) is not ostentatious. It is a Lombard Romanesque church. The building was raised to the present shape in the 12th century. All pillars, except for some differences in their ribbing, resemble one another but for the last one of each row. Arches and pillars divide both the nave and the aisles into five quite equal spans.
The transept’s plan does not extend itself beyond the side-walls. It stands out just for its wideness and its barrel-vaults. The nave’s crossing with the transept is covered with an octagonal dome. The main apse opens itself directly on the transept without the span which is present in almost all Lombard churches like St Ambrose’s in Milan and St Michael’s in Pavia. The facade is of grey sandstone and brick work. The upper part contains a small loggia and a motif of entwined arches. The floor of the basilica is at a considerably lower level than that of the street outside because the city has grown higher with urban renewal over the past seven hundred years.
A church has stood on this site for 1,400 years. There is mention of a church of Saint Peter the Apostle in Pavia in 604, but it is believed to go back even further. It was renovated by Liutprand (Liutprando), King of the Lombards between the years 720 and 725. He was buried in the crypt of this church. Parts of the present church go back to the one consecrated there by Pope Innocent II in the year 1132.
The interior (picture 2 at left) is only sparsely decorated, except for the sacristy. Art works in the church in previous centuries have long been destroyed or looted. The interior has three naves, divided by large columns. The end of the right nave is recently refurbished. There can be seen in the floor some of the original mosaic of the twelfth century. The left nave still reveals some of the original construction. There the walls show traces of some of the frescoes of the 15th and 16th centuries. The majestic vault of the central nave was rebuilt in 1487 by the architect Giacomo da Candia of Pavia.
The tomb of Augustine has pride of place in the sanctuary of the church, and incorporates the main altar (picture 3 at left). The marble tomb (or Arca) is an exquisite production of the fourteenth century, ordered by the Augustinian Prior, Bonifacio Bottigello, of the family of the marquesses Bottigello. Bonifacio became the Bishop of Lodi. It was made by a follower of the sculptor Giovanni di Balduccio (1275 - 1379). The sculptors and artists were from Campione. The Arca is decorated by some 150 statues and reliefs.
If it looks familiar, then it is due to the influence of the tomb made for a saint, Saint Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). That tomb was designed by Nicola Pisano in 1264 and built in the Church of San Domenico, Bologna, in 1267. The fresco on the dome of the ceiling of the sanctuary goes back only to the year 1900. It shows the resurrected Christ accompanied by Saint Peter the Apostle, Saint Augustine and the mother of Augustine, Saint Monica.
The Order of St Augustine first moved to Pavia as early as 1277. On 2nd April of that year, the Bishop of Pavia, together with a number of reform-minded local ecclesiastical and civic officials, placed in the control of the Order the religious house (convento) of Santa Mustiola, which is a different site to the Church of S. Pietro Ciel d'Oro with which the Order was to become involved in 1327.
The situation at Pavia developed considerably further after William of Cremona O.S.A. became the Prior General (1327 – 1342). During the pontificate of Pope John XX (1316-1334, all at Avignon ). William defended the authority of John XXII against the attacks of theologians about papal superiority to the rights of kings, and against the imperialist claims of Emperor Louis (Ludwig) of Bavaria in this regard.
Previously in 1319, during the term of office as Prior General of William’s predecessor, Alexander of St Elphido, John XXII had already shown his appreciation of the support of the Augustinian Order by permanently granting it three privileges of filling three high offices in the papal court: papal sacristan, papal librarian and confessor to the Pope.
Immediately after William of Cremona became Prior General, John XXII granted the Order a privilege it greatly sought, i.e., the co-custody in Pavia, of the body of St Augustine. This was contained in the papal bull, Veneranda sanctorum patrum of 20th January 1327. By the bull Veneranda Santorum Patrum Pope John XXII appointed the Order of Saint Augustine henceforth as co-guardians with the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine of the tomb of Augustine in this church in Pavia.
The Pope took this action in positive response to a request from the Augustinian Prior General, William of Cremona O.S.A. Negotiatons with the reluctant and upset Canons - previously the sole guardians of the tomb - were protracted. After the Order of Saint Augustine finally acquired buildings from the Canons and private owners, its members moved to the area on 5th June 1331. It then took until 8th June 1838 for an accord of dual custodianship by both the Canons Regular and the Augustinians to be definitively resolved, after much animosity and even physical scuffles at the Pavia church in the interim.
The Order of Saint Augustine subsequently gained sole custody, and began construction of the massive tomb that is now located behind the main altar. This massive tomb goes through the floor into the vault of the building (picture 1). This huge marble tomb is decorated with 50 bas-reliefs and 95 statuettes. This is a masterpiece of Lombard sculpture of the fourteenth century.
Pictures (at right):
Picture 1: Pope Benedict XVI & urn of Augustine's bones, April 2007.Picture 2: The Pope greets Augustinians in the church's sacristy.Picture 3: The Pope in the church on 22nd April 2007.
The Order of Saint Augustine was determined to provide Augustine with a tomb that would be unsurpassed in magnificence. The Bishop of Pavia censured the Augustinians for their planned extravagance, but they would not be deterred. Work upon it began in 1350, but was slowed by the lack of funds. By 1397, about 4,000 gold florins had been spent, and the task was still incomplete. It was finished by 1402.
In the centre of the tomb, which stands over five metres high, in a special golden urn within a locked and heavily guarded silver case where the bones of Augustine rest. Carved in marble are scenes from the life of Augustine, e.g., Augustine listening to the homilies of Bishop Ambrose in Milan; a conversation between Augustine and the priest, Simplicianus; the 'Tolle Lege' conversion moment in the garden in Milan; Augustine receiving the white tunic of a catechumen from bishop Ambrose; the burial of Saint Monica; Augustine giving his Rule to his followers; a dispute between Augustine, the bishop, and a group of heretics; and Augustine baptising in Hippo.
The reliefs carved in marble are based largely on the Confessions of Augustine, the Life of Augustine by his biographer Possidius, and the medieval Legenda Aurea ("Golden Legends") by Jacobus de Voragine O.P. (1229 - 1298). Because of the use of the latter publication, the relief subjects include some mythical events in the life of Augustine that were drawn into the historical writings of the Middle Ages by Voragine and by at least four Augustinians who were early historians of the Order.
For example, one panel shows Augustine in a mitre curing an Augustinian Prior (religious community leader), who undertakes to celebrate Augustine's feast day annually. Another relief depicts the myth of Augustine's instructing pilgrims en route to St Peter's Basilica in Rome to go instead to the Church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro at Pavia. Numerous Augustinian saints and representations of virtues are carved in the marble reliefs as well.
Behind the tomb there is a portion of octagonal mosaic from Augustine's former Basilica of Peace in Hippo; this was the cathedral (main church) that Augustine used in Hippo. On 1st October 1695, a team of artisans was preparing to install brackets on the crypt altar in the church. Removing some paving stones in the floor, they came upon a marble box with charcoal lettering on the cover. This held a cloth veil, some human bones (including part of a skull), and some glass vials. Although the workmen, some of whom were functionally illiterate, later disagreed about such details as the form and placement of the writing and even whether there had been a third box. All were convinced, however, that they had found the relics of Saint Augustine, the patron saint of Pavia, whose body had been brought to that church in the eighth century.
The Augustinians were driven from the church and its monastery in 1700, and fled to Milan with the mortal remains of Augustine and the disassembled arca (marble tomb). When their monastery and church in Milan was then destroyed in 1799 by the army of Napoleon Bonaparte, the bones of Saint Augustine and the dismantled tomb were then taken to the cathedral (duomo) of Pavia. At the time that religious orders in northern Italy were being suppressed by Napoleon in 1799, the basilica in Pavia was turned into a military magazine and a stable for the horses of the French soldiers, and subsequently fell into ruin.
During the next century, a whole side wall of the basilica collapsed. The bones of Augustine continued to be held in the Cathedral of Pavia. After the delay of almost one hundred years, the basilica was repaired in 1896 and the relics of Augustine and the tomb were once again reinstalled. After lengthy negotiations, the Augustinians returned to the Church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro at Pavia in October 1900.
The Order paid 25,000 lire for the monastery next door, 30,000 lire to the supervisory board of the Cathedral of Pavia, and 7,000 lire to prepare the crypt and to transfer from the cathedral the marvellous monument in which the bones of Augustine were preserved. The bones and monumental tomb of Augustine were brought from the cathedral and placed in the basilica once more.
The bones of Augustine, which are usually kept behind a grille on the front surface of the mail altar of the arca, are securely locked in a glass-sided urn. This urn with the mortal remains of St Augustine has four locks, guarded by the bishop, the prior of the basilica, the mayor of the city and the council of the cathedral, thereby demonstrating that Augustine belongs to all of the components of the city of Pavia, without distinction. This event was commemorated in poetry composed by Pope Leo XIII.
In the year 1900 each Augustinian Province was asked to pay yearly the cost of maintaining a lighted lamp before the tomb of Augustine, and the lamps there are still burning. There is now an additional perpetual lamp that the Pope Benedict XVI lit before he led a celebration of Vespers there on 22nd April 2007. These lights are meant to symbolise that Augustine is still alive today both in his works and in those who live his spirituality.
The grand mosaic in Paleochristian strie which covers the ceiling of the apse above the sanctuary was done in 1900. It pictures very large representations of Christ the Redeemer, Saint Peter the Apostle on His right, and Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica on His left.Photo GalleryFor the Augnet gallery on the Augustinian history of Pavia, click here.
For further reading
E. A. Foran O.S.A.: The Augustinians. Published in 1938 by Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd., London.
To learn how the body came to rest in Pavia, Italy when in fact Augustine died in Hippo, North Africa, click here.
For two pages of Augnet specifically on the tomb of Augustine, click here.
La tomba di sant'Agostino – Pavia. An official blog on the tomb of St Augustine in Pavia, and is updated regularly. Written in Italian, but it has wonderful images. https://santagostinopavia.wordpress.com
Idle Speculations. A blog in April 2007 about St Augustine and his tomb. Photographs included.http://idlespeculations-terryprest.blogspot.com/2007/04/saint-augustine.html
Basilica di San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro - Saint Augustine’s tomb. 65 images.http://www.slideshare.net/michaelasanda/basilica-di-san-pietro-in-ciel-doro-saint-augustines-tomb