As the season of Lent begins, our series documenting the ancient Stations Churches of Rome returns too. We begin in the heart of the city, a stones throw from Piazza Navona, at the station for the First Saturday in Lent, St Augustine.
The construction of this church dates back to the late 13th century when Pope Boniface VIII ordered the replacement of an earlier church, dedicated to St Tryphon. The building work lasted until 1446, but by 1479 new works were undertaken under the patronage of Pope Sixtus IV to extend the church even further. This phase of work was supported by Cardinal d’Estouteville, the papal chamberlain and protector of the Augustinian Friars, and it was during this period that the facade as we see it was added using travertine, a type of marble, that had been part of the Colosseum.
Saint Augustine’s was the heart of the city during the late Renaissance period for a group of scholars and humanists, notably Johannes Goritz. The statue of St Anne with Our Lady that is seen in the church today is there because of the efforts of Goritz who was influential in the papal curia. The statue sits below a fresco of Raphael, who was a member of the same group of artists as Goritz. The Luxembourg native, who had a particular devotion to St Anne, had hoped to be buried beneath the statue however the sack of Rome around 1527 forced him into exile.
An unfinished painting, The Entombment of Christ, by a young Michelangelo was originally commissioned for the church, however its place was taken by Caravaggio’s Pilgrim Madonna. The painting can be seen in the Cavalletti Chapel today. The work of Michelangelo now hangs in the National Gallery in London, who bought it from Rome based, Scottish photographer, Robert Macpherson in the 19th century.
Inside the church the layout reflects the original plan of Francesco Borromini from the 17th century, despite subsequent works during the 19th century. It is laid out on a Latin cross plan with side aisles separated from the nave by 6 arches. The church is based on the Church of the Holy Spirit in Florence, a church also in the care of the Augustinian friars.
Augustine, in his works, spoke a lot about the significance of numbers and this influence stretches into the architecture as the number 12, the symbol for the universality of the Church is reflected in the twelve arches and side chapels in the original design. Today, two of the side chapels have been removed to make way, on the left-hand side for a side entrance and on the right of the church for a new sacristy and access to the convent.
Fifteen side chapels now feature in the church including The Chapel of the Crucifix, in a design attributed to Bernini. This chapel played an important part in the life of Philip Neri who prayed before it regularly. As well as the chapel of St Augustine, the chapel to the left of the sanctuary is dedicated to his mother, St Monica. The decorations include an altarpiece showing Our Lady of the Cincture flanked by Saints Augustine and Monica. Her relics are contained below the altar following their transfer from her original shrine in Ostia Antica. Her life is depicted in the vault frescos painted by Giovanni Battista da Novara.
If you’d like more details on the Station Churches, click here for an introduction.