When visiting churches, looks can be very deceiving. I had taken a look at the rather unimpressive late eighteenth century facade of the church of Sant’Agostino, and upon stepping inside had never expected to find gorgeous frescoes from the fifteenth century both in the apse of the church and on the triumphal arch. What we see here is, according to the information panel outside the church, “an extraordinary cycle of late-Gothic frescoes by Ottaviano Nelli and his workshop”. I had already seen some of Nelli’s work in the churches of San Francesco and San Domenico in Gubbio, but what I saw in the Sant’Agostino was so much better, especially because much of the cycle appears to be in excellent condition.
History of the church
As the name of the church suggests, this is a church of the Order of Hermits of Saint Augustine. Construction seems to have started around 1250 and the building and its convent next door must have been completed by the end of the century. The Sant’Agostino is located just outside the city walls of Gubbio. It is just a stone’s throw away from the Porta Romana gate, which is basically a tower with a height of some 30 metres. People who want to admire the entire Augustinian complex from above should take the Funivia – a cable car which resembles a ski lift – to the church of Sant’Ubaldo on Monte Ingino. The Funivia takes you from the centre of Gubbio, which is situated 532 metres above sea level, to the basilica, which is 803 metres above sea level. It is a comfortable ride inside a basket with high railings so that people cannot fall out. The ride takes about six minutes, which is long enough to admire the panoramic view. While trying to find my balance inside the basket, I took many pictures of Gubbio down below, including a particular good one of the Sant’Agostino and the adjacent convent.
The church has a single nave, which was provided with side chapels in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These chapels are no more than shallow niches and none of them are particularly interesting. The walls of the nave must have originally been covered in frescoes, but unfortunately none of these have survived. If you take a look at the church from above, you may notice five cylindrical towers on either side of the nave. These are in fact buttresses that provide the church with extra stability; we have seen a similar construction at the church of San Francesco in Assisi. Much of the church was rebuilt in the eighteenth century, but the right side is still more or less composed of the original fabric. The simple brick facade dates from 1790.
Ottaviano Nelli’s Last Judgment
Ottaviano Nelli was born in Gubbio in about 1375 and died in 1444. We do not know when exactly he painted his frescoes in the church of Sant’Agostino, but it was likely after he executed his Stories from the Life of the Virgin Mary for the church of San Francesco in Gubbio. These were painted between ca. 1408 and 1413, and Nelli’s activities in the Sant’Agostino are usually dated to the period between 1410 and 1440. So in all honesty, we can only guess when the painter was active at Sant’Agostino. Although the frescoes are now famous and have their own page on Italian Wikipedia, it should be noted that they have for centuries been covered with plaster and were only rediscovered in 1901.
The frescoes of the triumphal arch depict the Last Judgment, a popular theme in Italian religious art. We have previously seen this theme in, for instance, Florence, Rome and Padova, and also on Torcello in the Venetian lagoon. Here in Gubbio, we see Christ the Judge seated inside a mandorla. The mandorla is composed of and surrounded by angels. Some of the angels are carrying instruments of Christ’s passion, such as the cross, nails and the spear that was used to pierce the Saviour’s side. On either side of Christ are six apostles (the twelfth apostle on the left is almost completely gone; we can only still see his feet). Below Christ, the dead are resurrected by two angels blowing huge trumpets and they can be seen rising from their graves. Those allowed to go to the left are first sent through Purgatory and are then admitted to Heaven. Saints Peter and Paul stand at the gate to welcome them. Those poor souls forced to go to the right are sent straight to Hell, which – judging by the looks of it – is a horrible place indeed. The brothers Lorenzo and Jacopo Salimbeni may have been responsible for painting the lower part of the fresco.
Ottaviano Nelli’s Stories from the Life of Saint Augustinus
Even better than the Last Judgment are the Stories from the Life of Saint Augustinus of Hippo (354-430) in the apse of the church. Although the Augustinian Order was only formally founded in 1256 when it was approved by Pope Alexander IV (1254-1261), the order considers Augustinus its true founder because he was the one who formulated the Augustinian rule. The cycle starts on the soffit of the arch, where we see Christ and the apostles again. The vault – see the image above – has frescoes of the symbols of the four evangelists in the centre: a lion for Mark, a man for Matthew, an ox for Luke and an eagle for John. The vault is also where the episodes from the life of the saint start. On the left, below Matthew, we see how Augustinus is taken to school by his mother Monica (died 387). Monica then has a dream and goes to the bishop (see the fresco below Luke’s ox). In the next two scenes, we see how Augustinus is studying liberal arts and is teaching rhetoric in Carthage.
The story continues on the walls of the apse. Augustinus takes a ship to Rome and arrives at Ostia. He teaches rhetoric in Rome again, but then a delegation arrives from Milan looking for a new teacher for their city. They are welcomed by the prefect Symmachus at the city gate. The future saint subsequently leaves Rome for Milan, where he meets with the local nobility. But the most formidable figure in Milan is its bishop, Ambrosius (ca. 340-397). Augustinus, who at that moment is still an adherent to Manichaeism, has a discussion with Ambrosius and listens to his sermons, together with his good friend Alypius of Thagaste. He then visits a devoutly Christian man named Simplicianus, the same Simplicianus who would succeed Ambrosius as bishop of Milan in 397 (see Milan: San Simpliciano). An angel presents Augustinus with a Bible, and this is probably the point where he hears a voice say to him: tolle, lege, pick it up and read it. In the next scene, Augustinus is baptised by Ambrosius (see Milan: Sant’Ambrogio). He has renounced his Manichaean ideas and is now a Christian.
Meanwhile, Augustinus’ mother has tracked down her son in Milan. Together they travel back to Africa, but Monica dies in Ostia before she can board a ship (see The Christians of Ostia). Therefore Augustinus has to return to Carthage alone. He is subsequently ordained a priest in Hippo Regius (modern Annaba in Algeria) by the local bishop Valerius. Now he can begin formulating his famous rule, which was depicted in a scene that is so damaged that it is now almost illegible. Not much later Augustinus becomes the bishop of Hippo Regius and in this new capacity, he has a dream in which he is dressed as a monk and in which his contemporary Saint Jerome (ca. 347-420) and Saint John the Baptist appear. In the same scene, we see how the Trinity appears in the sky, witnessed by Augustinus.
In the final scenes of the cycle, Augustinus as bishop refutes the heretics, including the Manichaeans (this scene is unfortunately a bit damaged). He then passes away on the traditional date of on 28 August 430, while the Vandals are besieging Hippo. The next two scenes, on the back wall, are almost completely destroyed. They once depicted the saint’s funeral and the translation of his body to Sardinia, to protect it against the Arian Vandals.
We then skip some 300 years and arrive at the last two scenes on the right wall of the apse. In the penultimate episode, Augustinus’ relics are translated again, from Sardinia to Pavia, to protect them against the Muslim Arabs who are roaming free in the Mediterranean. The story of the translation is told in some detail by the Venerable Bede (ca. 672-735), an English Benedictine monk. In the final scene, Saint Augustinus performs a posthumous miracle by liberating a prisoner from a tower. One of the guards is sleeping, while another witnesses the miracle in amazement.
I was on my way to the Funivia when I visited the church of Sant’Agostino. My travel guides had dedicated just a few lines to the church and none of them mentioned Ottaviano Nelli’s frescoes. Therefore I had almost skipped the church, as judging by the unimposing facade, I assumed it could not be that interesting. I am glad that I overcame my initial hesitations and went inside. I was immediately in awe of the Last Judgment fresco and took my time to study the frescoes about the Life of Saint Augustinus. I can now conclude that a visit to the church of Sant’Agostino is highly recommended.
A detailed discussion of Ottaviano Nelli’s Augustinian frescoes can be found here. The Key to Umbria website has more information about the church itself.
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