With the multiplicity of churches within Lucca’s tree-crowned walls, Sant’Agostino, in the north-west part of the inner city, doesn’t seem to get that many visitors. Its exterior in unprepossessing and its interior doesn’t seem to warrant a detailed inspection.
Yet this church holds one of Lucca’s greatest mysteries and two further minor mysteries as well.
St Agostino was completely rebuilt in the fourteenth century on the site of the monastery of Augustinian monks and the church of San Salvatore-within-the wall, so called because part of the old Roman theatre was used for one of its sides.
To this day, the bell tower of the “new” church is set on the arches of Lucca’s old Roman theatre – not to be confused with the famous amphitheatre in the north-east part of the city. That is mystery number one – did you know that Lucca has remains of a Roman theatre as well as of an amphitheatre? Dating back to the second century, other parts of Lucca’s Roman theatre can be spotted in Via S. Giorgio, Via S. Sebastiano and Piazzetta delle Grazie, where the curving outline of the houses shows that they have been built directly on the theatre’s foundations.
Sant’Agostino is built largely of brick with a few decorations of white limestone pilasters. Its interior was remodelled in 1664 with a single nave and three chapels in the apse. One of these chapels contains the venerated image of the Madonna Del Sasso (Madonna of the Stone) which leads to the church’s second and greatest mystery. The Madonna Del Sasso is so-called because a local man, who had just lost a large amount of money in a betting game after he had asked for the Madonna’s help in winning, took it out on her by throwing a stone at her image in the church, upon which the image began to bleed, and a chasm opened up below the vandal (and blasphemer), swallowing him into the jaws of hell.
If you look closely you can see a dent in the Madonna’s right shoulder
Indeed, there is also a trap-door below her image, and above it is a plaque relating this incident with the words in Latin translatable as:
Injuring and making the Virgin bleed
The impious man fell endlessly
For many years the chasm was left open and it was stated that if one dropped a dog in it and lifted the poor beast up again the animal would have a singed coat and smell of sulphur. It was, in fact, believed that this chasm was one of the entrances to hell, rather like the Phlegraean fields near Pozzuoli in Southern Italy.
Some merciful people considered diverting floodwaters from the Serchio River into the chasm in order to alleviate the suffering of the burning souls considered to lie at the bottom of it.
At the end of the eighteenth century the chasm was covered over by a trap door which can still be seen today. I found it impossible to lift the trapdoor and verify the story, which is just as well as I may not have been here today to relate the fact!
The third mystery of Sant’Agostino relates to a remarkable nun, the Blessed Elena Guerra (1835-1914) who crusaded against the newly united Italian nation’s violently anti-clerical stance and against the increasingly diffused spiritualist movement with its séances and communications with the dearly departed. Elena founded the congregation of the Oblate Nuns of the Holy Spirit believing that the Holy Spirit would fight against the Spiritualists (who had their British headquarters until recently in 33 Belgrave Square, London and whose most significant members included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, among other memorable characters).
Elena Guerra had an appropriate surname, translated as “war”, since she was a character of very strong views and was eventually thrown out of the order she had created because of major differences. In 1959 she was beatified by Pope John 23rd, who only recently has been promoted from beatification to full saint-hood. Indeed, there are many nuns associated with Elena’s Order who are asking for her canonization. One of them I met in Sant’Agostino and told me many more stories about her foundress.
Elena Guerra’s body lies entombed within the church of Sant’Agostino for all devotees to admire. I have to thank her for her posthumous help to me in the nearby clinic of Saint Zita, when I had some medical problem, and which she helped to found.
There may be other mysteries in just this one church of Sant’Agostino but they were not investigated as I felt that my lunchtime had arrived and, thus, I headed for the nearest trattoria.