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Sant'Aurea a Ostia Antica

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Sant'Aurea a Ostia Antica is a 15th century cathedral and parish church at Piazza della Rocca 13, right in the centre of the mediaeval village of Borgo di Ostia Antica in the zone of Ostia Antica. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is to St Aurea, and is unique in Rome.

The church is not a minor basilica.



This is the cathedral of the suburbican diocese of Ostia, and is situated just to the east of the ancient town of Ostia, the former port of ancient Rome to the south of the Tiber estuary.

The tradition is that the church was founded in the third century, but there is no archaeological evidence for this. The foundation legend is that a virgin martyr named St Aurea (or Chryse in Greek, the name means Golden) was buried here or hereabouts in about the year 270. Unfortunately the extant story of her martyrdom is historically worthless.

In classical times the area of the present Borgo di Ostia Antica was a cemetery beyond the eastern gate in the town walls of Ostia, and the establishment of a martyr's shrine in the area is, however, plausible.

The ancestor of the present church was more probably already established by the time of the death of St Monica in Ostia during her journey home to Africa with her son St Augustine in 387, because a fragment of a funerary inscription of hers was discovered near it in 1945.

Ancient townEdit

The ancient town, now referred to as the Scavi di Ostia Antica, has remains of three early Christian churches, with another two nearby:

The oldest is the Basilica Constantiniana, the foundations of which were found buried just inside the city walls in the south-east quarter of the town in the late Nineties. This was built as the cathedral of the diocese of Ostia.

Also in the walled town were the Oratorio di San Quiriaco, which survived the longest, and the Oratorio delle Terme di Mitra. These can be viewed by those visiting the archaeological park.

To the south of the walled town was the Basilica di Pianabella, and finally in the cemetery of Ostia Antica there is the church of Sant'Ercolano. Unlike Sant'Aurea, this latter church edifice is demonstrably ancient and marks an old Christian cemetery in the eastern suburbs of the walled town.

(It may be noted here that the present scholarly consensus is that the so-called "Christian Basilica" in the excavated ruins was never a church.)

Ancient dioceseEdit

As an ancient and important place, Ostia probably had a bishop very early in the Church's history. The first one recorded was St Quiriacus, who was traditionally martyred in 230 and whose shrine was in the church named after him mentioned above.

A bishop named Maximus consecrated Pope Dionysius in 259, and this action later became the prerogative of the bishops of Ostia.

In 336, after the consecration of the great Constantinian basilica as the new cathedral (the location of the former cathedral is unknown), the bishops were granted the pallium which, in those days, was an exceptional honour and not something granted lightly.

Mediaeval period Edit

The list of incumbents starts in 753. However, the town was vulnerable to raids by pirates after the collapse of the Roman Empire and, after a major naval battle between Romans and Muslim pirates from North Africa in 849, the old town was abandoned and the remaining inhabitants moved to its eastern suburb outside the walls. Pope Gregory IV fortified it, and named it Gregoriopolis but it later borrowed the name of the abandoned town and became Ostia Antica.

In 1150 the diocese was united with Velletri, by then a much more important town. The locality of Ostia Antica declined catastrophically, and much of the landscape became malarial marshland which it remained until the 19th century. The village was left as the only settlement in the former diocesan territory.

In the 15th century the church seems to have fallen into ruins, and the relics of SS Aurea and Monica were removed in 1430.

Rebuilding Edit

At the end of the 15th century there arose serious anxiety about the possibility of an Ottoman Turkish naval attack on Rome, and a castle was commenced at Ostia Antica by the French cardinal William d'Estouteville. He also began the reconstruction of the cathedral, but the work on both was completed by the future Pope Julius II in 1483. Hence, the present church is entirely 15th century in fabric. The architect was Baccio Pontelli, who also designed the castle.

In 1500, the title of the diocese of Ostia and Velletri was vested in the Dean of the College of Cardinals, replacing any former episcopal title held by a newly appointed incumbent.

The rebuilt church was administered by the Augustinian friars.

Modern times Edit

The modern settlement of Lido di Ostia began to be developed at the end of the 19th century, and the great new church of Santa Maria Regina Pacis a Ostia Lido was begun in 1916. This could have become the cathedral of a new diocese of Ostia, but it was not to be.

The diocese had been separated from Velletri in 1914, but was not allowed to become a fully functioning suburban diocese like Porto-Santa Rufina. Rather, the Dean of the College of Cardinals was allowed to unite the title with whichever episcopal dignity that he already held instead of renouncing the latter. The territory of the diocese was administered by the Diocese of Rome. The arrangement was formalized in 1948, when this territory was restricted to the single parish of the cathedral and the other parishes transferred formally to the Diocese of Rome.

In 1966, the responsibility for the parish was transferred to the Cardinal Vicar, while the episcopal title became a mere honorific held by the Dean of the College of Cardinals.

In 1984, the cathedral was given a Chapter of twelve secular priests headed by an archpriest.

in 2012, the diocese was re-established as a territorial entity with four parishes. The number was as a result of the old parish being sub-divided. The two new ones with churches are San Carlo da Sezze and San Timoteo a Casal Palocco. Further, the parish of Sant'Agostino Episcopo was established but still (2015) awaits a proper church (see Cappella delle Beatitudini). So, the diocese of Ostia contains four public places of worship -three churches and a TENT!

In practice, the Diocese of Rome is still administering these parishes.

The present bishop is Angelo Sodano.


Setting Edit

The tiny old village is an interesting example of a castle bailey settlement. The impressive castle keep is in the form of three cylindrical towers arranged in a triangle. The outer bailey is roughly triangular in layout, and contains the village buildings arranged around a piazza and two streets which are accessed via a single gateway on the north side. The little cathedral is at the south end of the piazza. Despite its former status, the church is neither large nor very grand.

Layout and fabric Edit

Its rebuilding to a design by Baccio Pontelli in 1483 involved both the shortening of its length to make room for the castle, and the reversal of its orientation so that the entrance faced the castle keep to the west. As a result, it is a simple rectangular edifice of five bays without side aisles. Four bays form the nave, and the fifth the sanctuary. Sacristy accommodation is behind the sanctuary, forming a sixth structural bay.

There is a low tower campanile in brick with a pyramidal cap at the back of the left of the sacristy, having two storeys above the church roofline. The lower storey contains the clock. The bell-chamber has a pair of elongated arches on each side, separated by a brick pier with a cushion capital matching the cushion imposts at the sides. The red bricks of the chamber are very thin and well laid, and look ancient.

The fabric of the church is in pink brick, with architectural details in travertine limestone.

The left hand side wall, facing the piazza, has six derivative Composite pilasters with heraldic elements incorporated into their capitals. They support an entablature with a molded cornice, a blank frieze and a projecting cornice. Strikingly, the pilasters stand on tall vertical rectangular plinth-panels with relief carvings of wall trophies and with their top edges connected by a string course. The first, third and fifth bays each have a large round-headed window, in a dished recess with stone mullions forming two arches and a little oculus containing a quatrefoil. The fifth bay fronts the sanctuary. The sixth bay, fronting the sacristy, has two small square windows with stone frames, one above the other.

Façade Edit

The entrance façade matches the side wall, with four pilasters standing on carved panels. The outer panels show more war trophies, but the inner show the shield of the Della Rovere family from which Pope Julius II arose. (The tree depicted is an oak. The Latin for this is quercus, but oak timber is robur which also means "strength".) In between the pilasters is a pair of windows in the same style as those round the side.

The single entrance has a molded marble doorcase with a floating horizontal cornice over a lintel inscription which is not easy to make out. A relieving arch in the brickwork above the cornice is defaced by a little relief of the arms of Cardinal William d'Estouteville, who began the church (Pope Julius finished it). Above this is a central rose window, with eight lights within a dished brick frame. The crowning entablature and triangular pediment follows, with the arms of Pope Julius when he was only a cardinal (note the hat) in the tympanum. A pair of flaming torch finials occupies the corners of the pediment.

Under the left hand window is a large tablet with a worn inscription dated 1635, which rather spoils the symmetry of the façade.


Nave Edit

The aisle-less five-bay interior is simply decorated, with the walls painted in white. The sanctuary in the final bay is only distinguished from the nave by the provision of three steps up in marble.

The wooden roof, supported by triangular trusses, has no ceiling. However, the bare woodwork of rafters, trusses and planks has patterns of painted stencilling in pale green with fleurs-de-lys in red.

The first bay has the baptismal font to the left. This is a shallow white marble basin on a pedestal, on which is an impressive cylindrical polychrome stone cover. The stones used include verde antico and Sicilian jasper. The inscription is in honour of Cardinal Alderano Cybo, whose coat-of-arms is inlaid in the little ogee cupola. It reads: Alderanus ep[iscop]us Ostiensis, cardinalis Cybo, S[acri] Coll[egii] decanus, regenerandis filiis hominum et in Dei filios adoptionis MDCXCVIII ("Alderanus Cardinal Cybo, bishop of Ostia and Dean of the Sacred College, [set this up] for the regeneration of the sons of men and their adoption as sons of God 1698"). On the wall above the font is an anonymous 17th century depiction of The Baptism of Christ (sadly deteriorated) in a red marble frame.

The second bay of the nave has two large and rather top-heavy side-altar aedicules in grey marble. They are an almost matching pair. The altar frontals are in polychrome marble inlay, and above each altar is a round-headed altarpiece which is again an anonymous work. The right hand one is of Our Lady of Pompei, and the left hand one shows The Immaculate Conception (with a vignette of The Annunciation below the main picture). The altarpiece of each altar is in a niche with dished sides, flanked by a pair of partially ribbed Ionic columns supporting an entablature and oversized segmental pediment.

The entrance to the Chapel of St Monica is on the right in the third bay. It has a blocked window above it, in the same style as the other windows.

The Stations of the Cross are modern glazed blue and white terracotta plaques in the style of Luca dell Robbia.

Sanctuary Edit

The sanctuary has a tiny round-headed rectangular apse. This is enclosed by another overpowering grey marble aedicule, allegedly using stone scavenged from the ancient ruins. The apse is framed by an arch with a molded archivolt springing from Doric imposts, and this in turn is flanked by a pair of ribbed Corinthian pilasters supporting a horizontal entablature without a pediment. On the frieze of the entablature is a short epigraph recalling the rebuilding by the future Pope Julius.

Over the old altar is a 1627 depiction of the Martyrdom of St Aurea by Andrea Sacchi in an oval black marble frame. She is shown at the moment when the judge condemns her to death. The actual relics of the saint were removed from the old church in 1430, and are now at Castel Gandolfo.

The sides and vault of the apse niche display a remnant of 16th century fresco decoration. The lower portions of this have been destroyed, but visible are St Paul with a red beard to the right and St Peter with an unknown pope to the left.

The old altar is now reserved for the Blessed Sacrament. The original 15th altar was later remodelled, but the present work contains two bas-reliefs in the same style as the plinth panels on the church exterior. The tabernacle is an attractive little work in verde antico and gilded bronze.

The aedicule is flanked by a pair of doors leading to the sacristy. They are identically designed, each having a molded grey marble doorcase with a floating cornice. Above each is a red marble frame containing palm branch motifs and topped by a broken segmental pediment with a heraldic shield inserted into its top.

The marble-framed niche to the right of the sanctuary is thought to have been the original shrine of St Aurea.

Chapel of St Monica Edit

On the right of the nave is a side chapel dedicated to St Monica, built in 1627 and having as an altarpiece a depiction of SS Augustine and Monica at Ostia attributed to Pietro di Cortona.

This chapel also contains a fragment of the original funerary inscription of St Monica, which was re-discovered in 1945. The full text is attested to in old documents, and indicates that she was actually buried here after dying in Ostia on the way back to Africa with her son, St Augustine. The conversation depicted in the painting is mentioned in the latter's autobiography, and occurred just before her death. A terracotta relief by Raoul Vistoli 1973 also depicts this event.

Her relics were removed from here in 1430 and are now enshrined at Sant'Agostino in Campo Marzio.

A small marble column has been kept here, thought to be of the 5th century, with the inscription S. Aur..., which was discovered near the church in 1950. There is also a cast of an inscription reading Chryse hic dormit found in 1981 (the original is at the castle). The latter may have been the original inscription for the shrine, although this is impossible to prove. These two items are evidence for an early veneration of St Aurea in the vicinity.

Liturgy Edit

Mass is celebrated:

Weekdays 8:00, 18:00 (19:00 April to September);

Sundays and Solemnities 8:00, 10:00, 12:00 (not July or August), 18:00 (19:00 April to September).

External linksEdit

Official Diocesan Web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Parish website

Archaeological description of church

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