The Basilica of St. Augustine in Rome is easily dismissed as a footnote lost amid a veritable sea of Catholicism’s greatest churches. In any other city in the world it would be counted among the most venerated of churches as it houses the relic of St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine of Hippo. In addition to its religious importance, it is one of Rome’s most artistically important as it was built entirely in the 15th century and boasts a fantastic array of Renaissance artwork. For those Christian pilgrims to Rome who can somehow manage to pull themselves away from the Catholic world’s greatest treasures, the Basilica of St. Augustine is worth a visit.
Monica, mother of the celebrated Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, was one of the most popular female saints to emerge in the later Roman period. Evidence suggests that she came from North Africa, and she almost certainly lived there for some time, probably in the city of Tagaste. While Monica was a dedicated Christian, her husband was a pagan, which resulted in great difficulties with their marriage and children. In particular, her oldest son, Augustine, was considerably wayward, pursuing at times both paganism and Gnostic Christianity.
Much of Monica’s life was spent on convincing her husband and children to convert to Christianity, a task which took the better part of several decades but which was ultimately successful. Because of this Monica became a Christian model for unwavering determination, and for this she earned great admiration by Church leaders. Her story and efforts became well known due in large part to the later fame of her son Augustine. Monica died in 387 in the port city of Ostia, where she was interred for the next one thousand years.
During the 13th century, Monica became an increasingly popular saint. In 1430 the papacy had her remains moved to Rome. Guillaume d’Estouteville, a cardinal and high-ranking Vatican official, was put in charge of erecting a new church in her honor. Built at the height of the Renaissance, it enjoyed artistic contributions from some of the finest craftsman of the age.
Strangely, the basilica was not named in honor of Monica, but rather her son Augustine (there are in fact two basilicas dedicated to St. Augustine; however, Augustine himself was interred in a church dedicated to Peter the Apostle). On an interesting note, Monica’s epitaph was composed by one Anicius Bassus, a Roman official. The original memorial stone was discovered in 1945 near the location of her tomb in Ostia.
The Basilica of St. Augustine in Rome is an overlooked Christian treasure. Overshadowed by a dozen other major Catholic and Christian sites in the city, it nevertheless is fortunate to be close to the Piazza Navona and a smaller but steady stream of tourist traffic. Because it was built during a great era of building in a relatively short time, the basilica is one of the most aesthetically completed churches in the city. The simple but elegant exterior, notably the façade, was constructed using marble pilfered from the Colosseum.
Completed entirely during the Renaissance, the interior boasts some impressive artwork, including frescoes by Raphael and Caravvagio. The relic of St. Monica is interred in a chapel close to the church altar. Also buried within the church is one Maria d’Aquino, also known as Fiammetta, the consort of Cesare Borgia.
While the Basilica of St. Augustine enjoys its share of local visitors, pilgrims and tourists, it is a comparative oasis of peace and quiet as Rome’s churches go. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.turismoroma.it (official tourism website of Rome)
For those who can’t get enough of Monica, there is also the Basilica of Santa Aurea in nearby Ostia, where the mother of St. Augustine was originally buried. Currently interred there is St. Aurea, a 3rd century Christian martyr.