The troubled events of the relics of Augustine of Hippo, between transfers, findings and devotion

THE TROUBLED EVENTS OF THE RELICS OF AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO, BETWEEN TRANSFERS, FINDINGS AND DEVOTION.

Many Christians, and non, are well aware of the troubled and agitated life that Augustine (354-430), son of Monica and Patrizio, lived. He is revered as one of the major saints and fathers of the Church of all times. Nonetheless, very probably, few people know that after his death, his mortal remains had a rather restless course, as indeed was always the life of Augustine of Hippo himself.

Augustine lived for 76 years, not a few given the times. Many of these, from the age of 33, were lived as Servus Dei, in the monastic life he himself introduced to the West, and then, with a heavy heart, as presbyter and bishop of Hippo, a consular city in Africa. Towards the end of his earthly years, he witnessed the imminent invasion of his beloved city by the Vandals; a city which fortunately, after reaching an agreement with King Genseric (429-477), was not devastated. In fact, we know that the great Augustinian treasure, that is his library with his works - where, according to his biographer and close friend Possidio of Calama, everyone can still find him “always alive” - was spared and remained intact.

The fate of the Christians in that area changed with the king Huneric (+484). In that period we witness mass persecutions and exiles by Catholics, favouring the Aryans. Toward the end of the fifth century, we find another wave of persecutions, where many North African bishops were exiled to Sardinia in 498. A tradition has it that, in these circumstances, where most likely Augustine’s successor was found among many exiled bishops, the remains of the bishop of Hippo were jealously transported by these to the island of Sardinia. But this is only a guess, since so far there are no reliable documents that mention this explicitly. Some scholars postpone this possible transfer even to the sixth or seventh century. According to an undocumented tradition, the remains of Augustine were kept in a church in Cagliari, called in time “Sant’Agostino Vecchio”. Unfortunately, this church was demolished in 1884. Nevertheless, the crypt still exists, where the relics of the bishop of Hippo supposedly lay.

The first source that mentions this translatio of the relics from Hippo to Sardinia is from Bede the Venerable in his De temporum ratione. The same author speaks of a second translatio, that is, the one possibly executed between the years 721-725 by the Lombard king Liutprand, who buys at a high price the holy mortal remains, taking them to Pavia. According to stories from the twelfth century, driven by a strong devotion, Liutprand travelled to Genoa to venerate and meet the relics barefoot.

The holy remains of Augustine were placed in the church dedicated to “San Pietro in Cella Aurea” (today “San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro”) in Pavia, built for the veneration of the remains of Boethius (killed in 524 and popularly venerated as a martyr), to which Liutprand annexed a monastery that for a long time was in the hands of the Benedictine monks of Bobbio. The city of Pavia, then the capital city of the Lombard kingdom, in the unstable political and social context of the time, needed an increase in its self-esteem, to rise to the rank of one of the important cities, and one of the means to achieve this was the presence of prominent relics. Pavia was in competition with the nearby Milan, the city of Ambrose, another influential figure of Christian antiquity, and even more influential on the life and the conversion of Augustine himself. Therefore, the second transfer of Augustine’s remains had a clear political background: Liutprand wished to see his city increase in its prestige, and the presence of a saint like Augustine, certainly helped in all this. This undertaking around the saint’s relics was very dear to the king. In fact, out of the various religious buildings he constructed, he chose San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro to be buried in after his demise.

The cult of the relics grew a lot, and as a result several episcopal seats tried to obtain pieces of the mortal remains of the bishop of Hippo. We know, for example, that in 1022, the Archbishop of Canterbury obtained a piece of a certain consistency from the left arm. Also worth mentioning the tradition that the heart of the saint was preserved in Antwerp. Despite this increase in devotion, it does not seem that the presence of the relics changed greatly the religious physiognomy of the city of Pavia (it was only at the beginning of the 16th century that Augustine was proclaimed co-patron, after the liberation from the plague), and subsequently after a flourishing period of worship, gradually the traces of the exact place of the burial of the holy remains were lost. We have no news of monuments that indicate such a place.

Meanwhile, the year 1222 saw the passing of the custody of this church to the Regular Canons of the Congregation of Montara (replaced by the Lateran ones in 1509). These where joined, in 1327, after a request to the Pope by the Augustinian Guglielmo of Cremona and by consequent order of Pope John XXII, by the Hermits of Saint Augustine, who, founded by the Holy See on the style of the Mendicant Orders in 1244, had already had a presence in Pavia from 1254. But they wanted to get closer to the saint. Therefore, two religious Orders, both under the patronage of Augustine’s Rule, shared the same temple, each making use of literally half of it. That of the Regular Canons was not a peaceful coexistence, but the material closeness of the Augustinians to the relics of Augustine had an enormous implication in their identity as an Order. Unlike the Dominicans and Franciscans, the Augustinians did not have a physical founder. In fact, after John XXII’s decision, we witness a decisive growth in the Augustinian identity of the Hermits, making him the material founder of the Order and in an icon manner dressing him in the same black habit and leather belt that the Hermits had assumed since their foundation. In 1362 the most noble marble arca was commissioned, nowadays located in the centre of the presbytery, where since recent times the relics have been kept, but which was originally placed in the part in use by the friars themselves.

The tensions between the two orders always remained high, each claiming Augustine as its founder. This created inconvenience and quarrels for years. In fact, in 1580, Pope Gregory XIII, to extinguish further debates on heated issues between the Canons and the Hermits, will also prohibit any attempts to search or move the remains of Saint Augustine. But the battles between the two religious groups were destined to continue, at times even reaching the point of bloodshed. It is in the light of this historical background that the events of the discovery of Augustine’s relics must be interpreted.

It was the 1st October 1695, a Tuesday morning, the day of the sensational discovery. A group of bricklayers had to carry out some works on the altar in the crypt in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro. Putting their hand on some stones behind the said altar, and removing some paving stones, they came across a buried box of white Carrara marble, of about 120cm x 30cm x 30cm. The sacristan friar of the Hermits was immediately called, since the prior was not in the city.

The box had some letters written in charcoal, deciphered by those present as the name of Augustine. Inside this first box, there was another one, also in marble, but carved, and inside the latter, another one in silver decorated with Lombard-style crosses. Opening the latter, they could glimpse human remains wrapped in a cloth. An exhumation was carried out in the presence of the authorities of the two religious communities and other civil and religious authorities, with expert anatomists meticulously listing the remains. An investigation was carried out between November 1695 and February 1696, and another one in 1698. Despite a certain reluctance on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities to authenticate the relics as those of the bishop of Hippo, the enthusiasm of the city and a number of miracles, attributed to the relics, accelerated the course of the events.

The news of the rediscovery of the “relics of Augustine” spread across the Italian peninsula, and there was no lack of controversy among the scholars of the time, those in favour of the authenticity of the remains as well as those against it, or at least dubious, producing a number of works in the form of brochures, pamphlets, and treatises on the subject, which circulated in large numbers, and possibly involving a large part of the Pavia population, at least for some years. Despite popular enthusiasm in the city and other places, no decision was taken on the authenticity of the relics.

This question led to the intervention of the Dominican pope Benedict XIII who, in 1728, asked for clarifications and conclusions on the matter, and he wanted them in a circumscribed time. The pontiff seems to have tended to hope for a positive conclusion, that is, one that is in favour of authenticity. On this occasion a small inventory was also made of the relics scattered in different cities: Montalcino, Piacenza, Valencia, Dubrovnik…

With the arrival of the Roman authorities, things took a different turn, for example, with more control in the bibliographic production. In May of the same year, the box with the bones was reopened, and specialists of the time were consulted, concluding the works on June 20th. Three days later a procession was held from the Duomo to San Pietro. Those who participated and those who visited the remains during the following 40 days were granted a plenary indulgence, which indirectly implied that a conclusion favourable to authenticity had been reached.

The conclusions, which were handed to the bishop of Pavia in July of the same year, confirmed the authenticity of the relics. The events proceeded in a hurry: on July 10th, the bishop announced that the official proclamation was to be made on July 16th and that three days later there was to be the singing of the Te Deum and fireworks to celebrate the event. These notices included the threat of excommunication to those who disagreed with this decision. On 22nd September 1728, Benedict XIII, surrounded by intellectuals and scholars whom he could trust to advance the topic, confirmed in writing the judgement of the bishop of Pavia, Francesco Pertusati. With the confirmation, the prohibition to continue with the controversy on the subject was renewed. Publications on this event saw the light in Madrid, Leipzig, Barcelona, Venice, Rome…

A series of political and military events marked the fate of the city of Pavia, and with it that of the relics of Augustine. In February 1734 these were briefly transferred to the Duomo for safety reasons. Under Emperor Joseph II, in 1758, the community of the Regular Canons ceased its presence in San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, and the Hermits were moved the following year to a former Jesuit convent. They took with them the relics of Augustine and of Boethius, with all the marble arca commissioned in the second half of the fourteenth century. In the 1790s, the convent was transformed into a seminary. In 1799 the Augustinians ere expelled from Pavia by Napoleon. They had to separate from the relics of the Holy Bishop, leaving them in the hands of the Bishop of Pavia, who happened to be also an Augustinian, and who placed them in the Duomo for the second time. In the 1830s there was the idea of demolishing San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, which fortunately did not happen. In 1842 an important piece of relic was granted to the bishop of Hippo, mons. Dupuch, to take with him to Algeria, where it can still be found today, in the basilica on the hill overlooking the city, today with the name of Annaba. In 1884 the last survey of the sacred remains was made, where an inventory with two hundred and twenty-five pieces of bones was collected, with some glass containers. After restorations that brought the church back to its medieval state, it was reopened in 1896 and the sumptuous late-medieval marble arca was placed in the middle of the presbytery. Finally, on the 17th of October 1900, the mortal remains were solemnly returned to San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, and handed to the Prior of the Augustinians, who are till this day the only guardians of their Father and Master.

The relics are solemnly exhibited twice a year: on the 24th of April, the anniversary of Augustine’s conversion, and on the 28th of August for the solemnity. Among the countless personalities who have venerated these holy relics, it will suffice to mention St. Paul VI, a great devotee of Augustine, who visited in May 1960; St. John Paul II, who had the opportunity to venerate them in his private chapel during a pilgrimage of these in November 2004; Benedict XVI, who during his life allowed himself to be shaped by Augustine’s thoughts, and who wanted to personally venerate the relics, which he did on April 22nd, 2007. On that occasion he expressed himself in these words: “Here then is the message that still today St Augustine repeats to the whole Church and in particular, to this diocesan Community which preserves his relics with such veneration. Love is the soul of the Church’s life and of her pastoral action. […] Only those who live a personal experience of the Lord’s love are able to exercise the task of guiding and accompanying others on the way of following Christ. At the school of St Augustine, I repeat this truth for you as Bishop of Rome, while as a Christian I welcome it with you with ever new joy.”

List of relics encountered at the opening of the silver case after the discovery in 1695 (cf. Mathis De Carmagnuola (1965). Dell’inventione del sacro corpo di S. Agostino nel primo d’Ottobre 1695, 2)

 

  1. 10 pieces from the skull and some other small ones
  2. The lower jaw with two teeth
  3. A petrous bone with the auditory foramen
  4. 10 vertebrae of the spinal medulla, part od the neck, lumbar part, part of the back with a large part of the sacrum
  5. A left clavicle
  6. 25 pieces of ribs
  7. Portion of the pubic bone and the illion bone
  8. The bone pf both thighs, one whole and the other broken into three pieces
  9. The major foci of a leg
  10. The head of the major focus and all the minor of the other leg
  11. The adjuvant bone of a shoulder broken into two pieces
  12. Two foci of one arm
  13. Two foci of the other arm
  14. Some pieces of the carpus, and metacarpus, both of the feet and of the hands, with various articles of the fingers, of which it has not been possible to know precisely the missing
  15. 86 pieces of different bones
  16. Two glass ampoules, one larger than the other, both empty
  17. Several pieces of lead and a piece of wooden board

Bibliography

Mathis De Carmagnuola (1965). Dell’inventione del sacro corpo di S. Agostino nel primo d’Ottobre 1695, Pavia.

Fulgentius Belelli (1729). Collectio actorum atque allegatorum, quibus ossa sacra Ticini in confessione S. Petri in Cœlo aureo anno 1695 reperta esse sacras S. Augustini Hipponensis episcopi, & ecclesiæ doctoris exuvias probatum est, & novissime judicatum, Venice, volumes I and II.

A.C. De Romanis (1931). Sant’Agostino: il santo dottore nella vita e nelle opere, Rome.

J.T. Hallenbeck (2000). The transferal of the relics of St. Augustine of Hippo from Sardinia to Pavia in the early Middle Ages, Lewiston, NY.

H.S. Stone (2002). St. Augustine’s Bones. A Microhistory, Amherst.

M. Schrama, The commemoration of the Translation of the Relics of Saint Augustine, in U. Hascher-Burger – A. den Hollander – W. Janse (2010). Between lay piety and academic theology. Studies presented to Chr. Burger on his 65th birthday, Leiden, 55-77.

 

Fr. Josef Sciberras OSA, Postulator General (orig. in Italian)

Translated in English by Martina Scicluna


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