One soft spring night in Rome many years ago, I heard about a concert to be given at the church of San Agostino.
I'd never seen the church, although I'd been to the nearby Piazza Navona. When I climbed the steps to the plain facade and entered, another Roman marvel spread out before me. It's a spot almost unknown to tourists, but Italians often make it a place of pilgrimage.
As is true in most Roman churches, St. Augustine's lavish interior belies its very unassuming exterior. The array of altars, each unusual, each dedicated to a different holy person, now gives me the sense that I am visiting old friends.
A few people are usually lingering at the lamp-lit altar to the right of the entrance to St. Augustine, for this altar is said to have special graces to bestow on women expecting a child. The strong, matron-like figure, more classical than the usual ethereal Madonna, is seated, with a very robust child standing by her.
The hopeful who linger here may be talking to the Madonna quite openly, perhaps crying, and they may have brought flowers or an ex voto to place near her, to remind her of their plea. You'll see these precious objects arrayed around this altar, a quite beguiling collection — the hopes and dreams of other Catholics.
As you may have seen at St. Peter's Basilica, here is a statue so beloved that its foot has been worn smooth with kisses. It seems that this veneration began in 1829 when a man asked the sacristan to keep a light burning day and night for his wife, who was enduring a difficult labor. When word was out that there had been a safe delivery, others began to visit the statue and soon it became known as Our Lady of Childbirth (Parto).
A special celebration takes place here on the second Sunday in October, just in case you are in Rome then. If not, say a prayer for someone in childbirth.
Another famous woman, St. Catherine of Siena, is celebrated in the altar to the right. This scholarly mystic is patron of studies of the Augustinian order. Catherine is not only patron of Italy but also, as of last year, a patroness of Europe as well.
The Ecstasy of St. Rita by Giacinto Brandi greets pilgrims as they stroll to the right, and soon after, in the Chapel of St. Peter, a famous painting of God the Father comes into view.
This masterful work shows the Father contemplating the globe as lots of chubby, knowing cherubs look on. Beneath it, on the altar, a marble grouping of Christ and St. Peter shows the saint as he receives the keys.
At the right transept, the great St. Augustine makes his impressive appearance. Bishop, doctor of the Church and author of The Confessions and The City of God, Augustine is shown practicing charity, defending the church, always wearing the Augustinian habit — “anachronistically,” as stated in the guide I bought at the church. It had never occurred to me how much the garb postdates the saint.
Augustine, born in northern Africa around 354, is respected around the world as one of history's greatest intellects. Yet it was his intense love of God that made him the model of what a saint is. “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” he wrote — just one of countless beautiful, resonant passages to come from his gifted and prolific hand.
Now to the high altar, where the icon of the Madonna and Child rests amid soft lights and smooth marble. According to tradition, this work came from the church of St. Sophia in Constantinople.
In the inscription, Our Lady is called “The Joy of Heaven, Help of Earth, and Consolation of Purgatory.”
St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine, is venerated in an altar to the left of this one. It is altogether fitting that she should be, since, according to his accounts, her Christian witness was largely responsible for his radical transformation from a sampler of worldly wares into arguably the most influential Catholic thinker of the first millennium. Monica's remains were placed in the urn on this altar in the original sarcophagus.
Look up from here and you'll see another painting of God the Father, this a brilliant one in which majesty blends with fatherly tenderness.
Some of the most celebrated works of art and spirituality are yet to come, many placed on pillars in the central nave. This church became an attraction for well-to-do, artistic Romans; they seem to have endowed it with a very Roman brilliance.
Raphael himself is credited with the mystical, strong figure of the prophet Isaiah (1512).This painting is reminiscent of the style of his rival, Michaelangelo, who worked at the same time.
Beneath it, a very moving statue of the Virgin and St. Anne has been placed, in which an elderly woman rests an affectionate arm around the young mother, whose plump baby seems very pleased with the attention.
You're close to the exit, but don't leave yet. Near the door, The Madonna of Pilgrims (or of Loreto), a fine Caravaggio (about 1603), shows still a different Mary, glowing with a pearly radiance, with a very real child holding on to his exquisite mother.
At her feet, two shabbily dressed pilgrims with dirty feet kneel in adoration. Not all of bourgeois Rome liked having this reference to the unwashed in the church, but fortunately the Augustinians thought they looked just fine. This alone should inspire a visit and the climb up the stairs to the church to see it.
I didn't realize how beautiful this church is when I first saw it in about 1972, probably because it was always dark.
A luminous blessing of the Jubilee year preparations was the adding of light to Rome's churches. The Church of St. Augustine has benefited. So, too, will its pilgrims.
Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.