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from issue no. 03 - 2006

For Augustine an ark with popular jubilation

The body of the saint arrived in Pavia by the wish of Liutprand, King of the Lombards, in the VIII century. It was immediately brought here to the church dedicated to Saint Peter which then had a gold-plated roof. At the end of the fourteenth century the Visconti had a great marble ark constructed. It recounts, as in a film, the life and miracles of Augustine.

by Giuseppe Frangi

The facade of the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in Ciel d’oro

The facade of the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in Ciel d’oro

To cross the threshold of Saint Peter’s in Ciel d’oro in Pavia is like finding oneself on the stern of a ship. From the height of a dozen steps one dominates all of the wide nave-deck, with the great and massive arches that delimit it; but the gaze is immediately drawn to the prow of this ship-boat: at the end of the nave two stairs rise to the presbytery, which is clearly elevated and dominated, in the center, by an efflorescence of white marbles. It is the ark that contains the remains of Saint Augustine.
No gold, no candles. That first glance leaves impressed a sensation of nakedness. There are the walls, the stones, the abundant brickwork peculiar to Lombard churches; there are the walls for the most part bare; there is that formidable and rough polygonal dome that rises squarely and from which a limpid tranquil light pours down. All told, no special effect for Augustine. And yet, to climb those steps from the presbytery and catch a glimpse of the simple black casket that contains the remains of the saint is a moving experience. You can almost lean over and touch the protective grille, you can walk around it while the rare tourist or one of the faithful approaches unaware and curious. The only sign that this is a special place are the votive lights that, along the large perimeter of the presbytery, represent the homage of the Augustinian provinces throughout the world to their father.
Augustine has reposed here for about 1285 years. A Lombard king, Liutprand, brought him here between 720 and 725. Pavia in those years was a true capital; during his reign Liutprand succeeded in disciplining the other Lombard duchies, he had rejected the demands of Byzantium that the iconoclast offensive be extended to Italy, deploying his troops against Ravenna. But Liutprand’s most important expedition was to Sardinia. As Bede the Venerable recounts in his Chronica de sex aetatibus mundi: «Learning that the Saracens, having plundered Sardinia, were also about to profane the holy places where the bones of Saint Bishop Augustine were laid, already removed there because of the barbarian raids, Liutprand sent to ransom them at a high price, took them and transported them to Pavia. Here he reassembled them with the honors befitting such a great Father».
In his account Bede alludes to another emergency situation in the year 430 in Hippo. The Vandals had landed on the African shores the year before and were at the gates of the city and the bishop, by now seventy-five years old, was living out his last days. His biographer Possidius recounts: «One day while we were eating with him and talking about these matters, he said to us: “You should know that in these days of our misfortune I have asked this of God: either that He deigns to liberate our city from the enemy siege; or, should His will be different, that He makes his servants strong to bear this will; or that He take me to Himself, out of the world”». When illness confined him to his bed, «he had the psalms of David dealing with penitence transcribed – they are very few – and had the sheets attached to the wall, so that during his illness he could see and read them from bed, and he wept without cease». Possidius, witness of those dramatic days, tells also of a miracle that took place. A sick person, forewarned in a dream, approached his sick-bed asking Augustine to lay his hands on him. The bishop did so and the believer was cured. But Possidius also reports the first disenchanted reply of Augustine: had he been able to do something in such cases, he would first of all have done so for himself. A miracle never had such a low-profile; we can almost imagine the thinking of the saint: «What’s it to do with me? Without Him we can do nothing, and as for miracles…».
According to tradition the body of the saint was taken to Sardinia by the bishops who escaped from the Vandals’ siege (so says a letter from Pietro Oldrado to Charlemagne); but historians are more inclined to think that the saint’s remains had crossed the shores of the Mediterranean at the time of the Arab offensive in North Africa, that is at the end of the seventh century. In this way Liutprand finished the job by bringing Augustine’s body to a safer place: his own Pavia.
The journey is recounted, as in an excited comic strip engraved in marble, on one of the panels of the ark that still today rises above the tomb. Its author is unknown, even if it is known that it was Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan, who commissioned it, in the late fourteenth century, and that the workmanship is indisputably that of Lombard sculptors. And so, in the two panels on the right side, Liutprand’s mission is narrated figuratively, with detailed particulars. On top the king’s ship is seen as it lands on the Sardinian coast; the delegation on board is of the highest level: as well as Liutprand, Bishop Peter of Pavia is recognizable and an Augustinian religious with habit and cowl is seen. Lower down the same ship, with sails unfurled and rigging taut, plies the waters taking the venerated remains on board: Bishop Peter watches over them, with the crosier in hand.
On the side panel, the unknown sculptor, with similar liveliness, recounts the concluding sequence of the journey. Augustine’s body is borne on the shoulders of eight monks while King Liutprand follows holding the mitered head of the saint. The cortege is passing through the gate of Pavia; further up, instead, we see it in identical formation at the entrance to the Basilica. At its destination, that is, where it still lies today.
Saint Peter’s in Ciel d’oro was the most important church in Pavia, even though standing outside the walls; it was built over the site where Severinus Boethius had suffered martyrdom, killed in 525 by the emperor Theodoric to whom he had been counselor. The remains of Boethius are still kept in the crypt today. Nothing obviously remains of the building that Paulus Diaconus, the historian of the Lombards, described in the year 604. But of that ancient church, devastated as was all of Pavia by the tremendous raid by the Avars in 924, there remain the bones of the illustrious dead: Augustine, Boethius and also King Liutprand, buried at the foot of the presbytery.
On these pages, some scenes represented on the fourteenth century marble ark: up, one of the panels of the ark: Ambrose baptizing Augustine and presenting him with the white garment; above, the ark built over the altar beneath which lie the remains of Saint Augustine, the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in Ciel d’oro, Pavia.

On these pages, some scenes represented on the fourteenth century marble ark: up, one of the panels of the ark: Ambrose baptizing Augustine and presenting him with the white garment; above, the ark built over the altar beneath which lie the remains of Saint Augustine, the Basilica of Saint Peter’s in Ciel d’oro, Pavia.

The façade, large, welcoming, so pacific and so Lombardian, goes back to the time of the rebirth of Pavia as a city state in the 12th century. The façade is entirely brick because here displays of stone and marble were not used. It is a hospitable façade, with its great gables; if you look, the portal is not in the center, but is slightly shifted to the right so that between façade and interior there is a slight mismatch: a touch of imperfection that makes us feel immediately at home. A sensation reinforced by those ceramic plaques that sparkle in the sun, in contrast to the bricks that soak it up instead. The plaques are of Islamic manufacture, the guidebooks say. And one can readily believe it, because on a façade like this and in a church like this there is indeed room for everything.
But, in spite of its peaceable layout, the history of Saint Peter’s is very tormented. In 1780, at the time of the suppression, the Augustinians were banished, and the naves used as training grounds for the artillerymen. With Napoleon, twenty years afterwards, it was even worse: the demolition of the monastery led to the collapse of the nave, while the church became a store for wood and hay. In those grim years the remains of Augustine, enclosed in the silver urn commissioned by King Liutprand, were transferred to the cathedral. While the great ark, with its 95 statues and 50 bas-reliefs, was alone in the sacristy where sculptors of Gian Galeazzo Visconti had built and worked on it. Their reunion took place solemnly on 7 October 1900. In the meantime the church was restored and the ark moved to where we see it today, at the heart of the presbytery.
There is something of the affectionately exaggerated in this sepulcher that makes the whole city gather around the saint: the marble swarms with figures and vignettes recounting the story of Augustine. The most ordinary people, women and little children who were involved in his life; like him they look face upwards toward the great Ambrose preaching from the pulpit. The Ambrose returns again in the culminating scene of the consigning of the catechumen’s habit: the kneeling Augustine bends his neck to facilitate the operation. Right and left, with maximum compunction, his mother Monica and Simplician follow the ceremony. We find Monica again in the scene of her own funeral, the body carried by the monks is about to enter the church in Ostia which temporarily held her remains (kept today in the church of Saint Augustine in Rome): through the touch of those two umbrella pines that rise behind the cortege, the sculptor lets us understand that we are no longer in Padania.
But the two most beautiful scenes are in the cusps that recount the miracles of the saint. On the smaller side on the right Augustine walks with a book under his arm and meets a group of lame pilgrims all equipped with crutches. He points out the church to them, which is indeed that of Saint Peter’s, as one sees in the following scene. The façade is unmistakable, with its two little blind arches and its wide gables. The pilgrims have already gone outside and no longer have crutches because the miracle has truly happened, so much so that one of them is unable to keep the news to himself and is hurrying off to impart the news to everyone. We find another gathering in the scene of the cured prior celebrating the Feast of Saint Augustine: the people crowd to the doors of the church, the branches of the trees themselves seem also to be infected with joy, while with minute detail the sculptor delineates in tiny space the outlines of the two bell-towers that seem to be ringing out the feast, as those in Manzoni that welcomed Cardinal Federigo.
The Feast is somewhat the key to a tomb that has nothing tomblike or funereal about it. The enormous dimensions of the ark were not dictated in fact by a desire for celebration or for emphasis but in order to make room for all those who wanted to participate in the Feast of the saintly bishop. Faces and bodies of Lombard Catholicism. Of a Catholicism glad to have had a father like Augustine.

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