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San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro


The church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro (in coelo aureo) is a basilica situated in Pavia, built in the Longobard period (eighth century) and after rebuilt in Romanic style (twelfth century). Consecrated by the pope Innocenzo II in 1132, the church boasts a high prestige and fame in the catholic world, because it contains, since over a millennium, the remains of St Augustine from Ippona. Great example of Lombard Romanic architecture, mentioned by Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarca, the ancient building is generally considered, with the basilica of San Michele Maggiore, the most important Medieval religious monument of the city of Pavia. In 1796, the troops guided by Napoleone Bonaparte entered into the city and stripped the church, deconsecrated and used as stable or store, while the friars were driven out and the monastery given to the soldiers. The nineteenth century was harmful for the building, by then left derelict: the right aisle and the first span of the central nave collapsed and the interior was left exposed, with very serious damages for the remaining frescoes. Considering this bad condition, the Società Pavese per l’arte Sacra negotiated with the army the repurchase of the church and the ancient monastery of the Augustinian order in 1884. The restoration works have lasted many years and carried back the prestigious Romanic complex to the ancient splendour, rebuilding the defective naves, the crypt and erasing other alterations of the Medieval plant of the basilica in the previous centuries. The works finished in 1901, with the new consecration of the church, finally returned to the religious and artistic world. The St Augustine’s remains, formerly transferred to the cathedral, were carried again to the church, with the fourteenth-century arc that had to contain them. Now, the church is officiated by Augustinian monks, come back to occupy the ancient monastery.


A few rests of the Longobard church remain under the Romanic reconstruction. San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro appears in this way, like many other contemporary churches of Pavia: a brick building, with three naves, a transept, an apse and a crypt.

The façade

The gabled façade is marked by two buttresses dividing it in three parts, corresponding to the interior naves; the right buttress, more massive, hosts an interior stair, allowing to access to the roof. The top is crowned by a blind loggia and a motif with interwoven arcs. The sandstone is used only for the most important parts, like the portal, the small windows and the bull’s eye windows. Along the buttresses, there are tracks of an ancient narthex, or maybe a four-sided portico, preceding the entrance.

The interior

The interior is divided in five spans, rectangular in the central nave and square in the aisles. In comparison with San Michele Maggiore, here you can immediately see the different proportions of the central nave, wider, longer and less slender, the stricter succession of pillars, all

with the same section instead of to be alternated like in the other church, and the absence of the women’s galleries. The spans from the second to the fifth are covered by cross vaults; the first one, higher, is like an interior atrium (endonartece) or even a fake transept and it’s covered by a barrel vault. Is has also static functions, because it serves as bearing for the façade. The different system of vaults is visible also outside, looking at the different outline of the pitch backpieces. The cross vault of the central nave was rebuilt in 1487 by Giacomo da Candia. The first two spans of the left aisle are decorated by interesting sixteenth-century frescoes. Behind the triumphal arch, there is the transept: unlike that of San Michele Maggiore, it doesn’t protrude from the main body, but it occupies the width of the three naves. These last are eastwards closed by apses, outside decorated with a blind loggia, like the façade, according to the Romanic architectural style; the basin of the central one, bigger than the other two, is decorated by a fresco of Loverini (1900), inspired to an ancient mosaic, destroyed in 1796. At the cross of the central nave and the transept, there is the octagonal dome on pendentives in Lombard style, closed outside by the brickwork lantern.

The painted decoration

Among the frescoes that covered the walls of the church, there are remains of those of the left nave. The protagonist is mostly the patron saint, St Peter (represented with the keys, often with St Paul with the sword) and in addition St Augustine. On the counter-façade, into the Saints’ representation there is also St Anna, depicted with the young Virgin Mary, the grandson Jesus and on her right a saint nun called Alda, as showed by the inscription. The first left span, decorated with grotesques about 1576, is dominated in the centre of the vault by a medal with Christ giving the keys to Peter. On the wall, there are two coexistent decorative programs, dating back different periods. In the lower part, the most ancient cycle, divided in different scenes, is uncompleted; it preserves the Resurrection, attributed to Bartolomeo Bonone. The architectural sixteenth-century partition, superimposed on the previous one, is situated on the upper part: here there is an arch, with the knelling St Augustine in front of the Virgin. Two symmetrical side niches host the figures of Peter with the keys (on the left) and Paul with the sword (on the right). In the second span, the vault is covered by a grotesque sixteenth-century decoration, with little medals representing episodes taken from the Genesis. On the wall of the transept, there are painted some episodes of the Passion, where there is also Peter: the Prayer on the Garden of Olives and the Judas Kiss.

The crypt and the Boezio’s tomb

Destroyed in the eighteenth century, the crypt was rebuilt at the end of the nineteenth century, following the ancient plant. Also the well was remade: a water believed miraculous was flowing from this source. The capitals are works of nineteenth-century restorers, in Byzantine-Ravenna style, like the little sarcophagus with the relics of the senator and philosopher Severino Boezio, imprisoned by Teodorico in Pavia, where he wrote De Consolatione Philosophiae and died in 525. In the crypt, into the wall behind the altar, there were hidden the St Augustine’s remains, into a silver urn, decorated with Longobard funeral crosses made by golden leaf. The precious relics, discovered in 1695, are now preserved on the table of the main altar.

The presbytery

The deep and raised presbytery is defined by stone transennas, made during the nineteenth-century restoration works. The seventy-two lamps made by wrought iron refer to the provinces of the Augustinian order. The apsidal basin, distempered in 1900 by Ponziano Loverini and Vittorio Bernardi of Bergamo, imitates the previous mosaic on a gold ground, and shows Christ on throne between the Saints Peter, Augustine and Monica. The twentieth-century table holds a silver urn, with the St Augustine’s remains and supports the big Gothic arc. Behind the altar, there is a fragment of floor mosaic come from Ippona, the African city of which Augustine was bishop.

The St Augustine’s arc

The funeral monument, on three orders, imitates the arc of St Peter martyr of Sant’Eustorgio in Milan. Designed maybe before 1350, it was created by a group of Lombard sculptors of the second half of the fourteenth century, influenced by Giovanni Balduccio of Pisa. At first situated in the southern sacristy (now disappeared), it was dismantled and reassembled many times, transferred to the cathedral and finally relocated in this church in 1900. On the base dated 1362, the scenes with the Apostles and Saints are alternated with allegoric figures of Virtues. The central part, open, allows to see the figure of the lying Saint, surrounded by six deacons lifting the shroud; on the vault, the benedictory Christ welcomes the St Augustine’s soul on the glory of the angels and saints. On the third level, or cymatium, eight scenes and ten triangular marble slabs show episodes of St Augustine’s life, his miracles and the translation of his remains. The story starts from the short side on the left, with Augustine on Episcopal chair between the views of Milan and Rome, the two cities where he taught. On the frontal side, from the left: 1) Augustine is hearing a St Ambrogio’s sermon; 2) Augustine is speaking with Simpliciano and after, during a meditation under a tree, he sees the angel who invites him to read; 3) He receives from Ambrogio the catechumenal clothes, at the presence of Simpliciano and Monica. On the short side, from the right: 1) Translation of St Augustine’s body from the Sardinia (in 722); 2) Arrival in Pavia and solemn entry into the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro. On the long back side, from the left: 1) The funerals of the mother Monica in Ostia; 2) Augustine founds the Augustinian order; 3) He becomes bishop and baptizes young boys. On the triangular slabs of the crowning, starting from the left: 1) Augustine frees a prisoner; 2) He takes him to his house; 3) He frees a person possessed. On the right side, there is represented the miracle of Cava: 1) Appearance to people who, going to Rome to be recovered, are invited by Augustine to visit his church in Pavia; 2) Arrived at the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, they are restored. On the left side of the arc, in correspondence of the saint’s head, there are four slabs with episodes happened in Pavia. On the long back side: 1) Prayer and conversion of an heretic; 2) Conversion of some heretics (recognizable by the chicken feet); 3) Augustine dies in Ippona. On the left side: 1) Recovery of the knight of Ippona, who risked to have amputated his leg; 2) People in front of a church (maybe pilgrims going to the saint’s tomb).

The floor mosaic

On the right transept, in front of St Rita’s altar, there is a fragment of a Romanic floor mosaic of the first half of the twelfth century, representing St Giorgio attacking the dragon next to a castle. The upper margin is constituted by five circles containing stylized flowers with six petals, a twelve-point star and an animal. On the lower part, the panther, the chimera and the fox, with two rampant hyenas, come from models illuminated on the Early-Medieval and Romanic bestiaries.

The Canons’ Sacristy

The big rectangular room, with the long sides marked by niches, is characterized by a vault with groins and lunettes, frescoed with grotesques of the second half of the sixteenth century (the date 1561 is written on the last capital on the left). On the central medal, into a cartouche frame, there is St Augustine in meditation. Two marquees hanged with ribbons and carried by angels overtop the Eucharist on the south and the Cross on the north, surrounded by angels with the instruments of the Passion and flanked by the pelican on the left and the phoenix on the right, symbols of Christ giving his blood and rising. On the northern side, in front of the entrance, in the central gore the marquee is hanged over the dove of the Holy Spirit, corresponding to the central lunette with God the Father, between St Peter and St Paul. On the opposite side, next to the church, the Virgin Mary with the Child is flanked by two saint popes. In the sacristy there is, as altarpiece, the painting on canvas of Giovanni Battista Tassinari of Pavia, with St Gerome appearing to St Augustine from a window (1599).