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Church of Sant'Aurea

In the centre of the mediaeval borgo Ostia Antica is the church of Aurea (in Greek: Chryse, "golden girl"). This was a Christian girl, who was executed in the mid-third century during the reign of Claudius Gothicus (268-270 AD) or Trebonianus Gallus (251-253 AD) (see the Acta Martyrum ad Ostia Tiberina). Apparently she belonged to the family of some king or a Roman Emperor. Because of her religious conviction she had been sent away from Rome to Ostia, where she lived on her own estate outside the city walls. She was in touch with the Ostian bishop, Cyriacus, and other Christian church officials. Later another Christian, Censorinus, was emprisoned in Ostia (perhaps criminals were often sent to Ostia and put to work in the harbour). Aurea and others comforted him, and one day his chains were miraculously loosened, a miracle leading to the conversion of 17 soldiers. The Christian company also brought the dead son of a shoemaker back to life. Aurea's companions were executed by a high official from Rome, Ulpius Romulus. The soldiers were beheaded near the arch of Caracalla in front of the theatre. Aurea was tortured, but refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. She was then thrown in the sea with a stone tied to her neck. She was buried on her own property.

In 1981 a fragment of a Christian inscription was found near the church:


("Chryse is sleeping here"). It is now in the castle of Ostia, in the church a plaster cast can be seen. It may be her original funerary inscription, but it may also have been added later to the tomb. Also near the church, in 1950, a small marble column (5th century?) was found, with the inscription:


It can today be seen near the altar. In 387 AD the mother of Augustine, Monica, died in Ostia. She was buried near the tomb of Aurea. Her funerary epitaph was written by Anicius Bassus, a later consul, and has survived in ancient manuscripts. In 1945 part of the orginal inscription was found near the church. It can today be seen inside the church:


"Here the most virtuous mother of a young man set her ashes, a second light to your merits, Augustine. As a priest, serving the heavenly laws of peace, you taught [or, you teach] the people entrusted to you with your character. A glory greater than the praise of your accomplishments crowns you both - Mother of the Virtues, more fortunate because of her offspring" (translation: Douglas Boin). Note by Douglas Boin: "Until now, scholars have unanimously interpreted the word "mother" (line 6) as a reference to Monica and presumed that the "virtues" are those of her offspring (subole), Augustine. The phrase "Mother of the Virtues" (virtutum mater), I believe, is a veiled personification of Love (caritas), a virtue who has been made more fortunate, or "abundant", because of Love's own offspring, "the chaste parent" (genetrix castissima), Monica. The phrase itself as a description or circumlocution for Love appears for the first time in a letter of Pelagius II, bishop of Rome (579-590 AD). It is Pelagius' successor, however, Gregory I (590-604 AD), who popularized this characterization of Love in his letters and scriptural commentaries".

The first church of Aurea may have been built in the fifth century. The orientation was precisely the opposite of that of the present church. In the floor and around the church many graves were found. The church was renovated c. 700 AD by pope Sergius I, c. 800 AD by Leo III, and c. 850 AD by Leo IV. In 1430 the relics were removed from the urn and taken to Rome, together with those of Monica (Acta Sanctorum, May I, p. 490). Later still, in the 18th century, they were brought to Albano Laziale (near Castel Gandolfo), to the chapel of the order of the "Suore Oblate di Gesù e Maria". In 1479 cardinal d'Estouteville ordered the building of a new church. The work was finished under cardinal Giuliano della Rovere. The architect was Baccio Pontelli. A large painting of the martyrdom in the apse of the church was made in the 17th century by Andrea Sacchi. Scenes from the martyrdom are also depicted in SS. Domenico e Sisto in Rome (Filippo Vanni, 14th century). See also Bruno W. Häuptli in the Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon.


The church of S. Aurea. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The funerary inscription of Chryse / Aurea. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The funerary epitaph of Monica. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The apse of the church. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The painting by Andrea Sacchi. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

[jthb - 21-May-2006]