The greatest favour that Pope Eugene IV bestowed upon the Augustinians was the canonization of St Nicholas of Tolentine in 1446. This process had begun more than a century previous but was delayed time and again through no fault of the Order. The impetus of this canonization was tremendous. It was the first in the Order since the Grand Union of 1256 and gave it great prestige. Two lives of the saint, printed about 1510, are among the earliest books in English published by Augustinians.
In the year of St Nicholas' canonization Eugene IV gave the Augustinians their greatest cardinal protector since the days of Cardinal Richard Annibaldi. He was William Estouteville (1403 – 1483), Archbishop of Rouen, a blood relative of the royal house of France. Estouteville left a lasting monument by the erection of the church of St Augustine (“Sant’Agostino”), the finest example of early Renaissance ecclesiastical architecture in Rome. In order to have proper administrative facilities a great Augustinian General Curia was added to the church. In 1482 more than 100.000 ducats was still needed for the completion of the double undertaking and the Order pleaded at its general chapter of Padua for the continued support of its protector but his death on 27th January 1463 placed a severe strain on the finances of the Order. Unfortunately this situation regarding the expense of conducting Chapters was not ususual.
What Pope Eugene IV did for the Order was not forgotten. When Amadeus, count of Savoy, took the name Felix V and set himself up as Antipope, the Order valiantly rallied to Eugene's support. The other pope to whom the Augustinians and all the other mendicant orders owe a great debt of gratitude was Pope Sixtus IV (pope in 1471 1484), the former Minister General (Superior General) of the Franciscans. In his very first year he revoked the obnoxious decree of Pope Callistus III (1378 – 1458), which had abrogated all exemptions and privileges of the mendicants.
He followed it with the so-called Mare Magnum which guaranteed to the individual Orders not only their former privileges but vastly increased them - literally a "great ocean." It was given to the Augustinians in 1475, and proved to be one of the most important pieces of legislation in the Order's history. A copy of it was found in all important houses because it was their bulwark of defence against any attacks on their rights.
Images (at right) Picture 1: St Nicholas of Tolentino O.S.A. Pictures 2 & 3: Church of Sant'Agostino, Rome
It was, however, not sufficient that Orders be protected from without. They also had to be strong within themselves and this by harmonious cooperation. In 1474, the same year in which Sixtus IV granted the so-called Mare Magnum (literally the "great ocean" of privileges to religious orders), he also forbade the Augustinian Observants to take over the houses of conventuals (non-Observants) by force, and also put a stop to the altercations between the Hermits and Canons Regular of St Augustine which of the two congregations Augustine had founded first – when, in fact, he had founded neither of them.
To show the Augustinians his personal favour Pope Sixtus IV his own expense rebuilt the Church of St Maria del Popolo, a place which the Augustinians had obtained before their Great Union in 1256. The Pope placed it into the hands of the Augustinian Observants. It may have been a sign of sincere affection that Sixtus IV appointed his own nephew, Raphael Sansoni-Riario, as cardinal protector of the Augustinians after the death of their previous protector, Cardinal William Estouteville in 1483. The Order, however, could scarcely be pleased with the choice, for he was a man interested in the accumulation of wealth and power, as if it were his right because of his connections with wealthy families who had popes in their lineage. He was of no value to the Order.
Raphael had been only seventeen years old when created a cardinal in 1477, thereby becoming the first-ever adolescent to be elevated to the College of Cardinals. As a patron of the arts, he is best remembered for having been the one who invited Michelangelo to Rome. This came about soon after 1496, when the Sleeping Cupid by the twenty-year-old Michelangelo had treacherously been sold to cardinal as an ancient sculpture; the aesthetic prelate discovered the fraud, but was so impressed by the quality of the sculpture that he invited Michelangelo to Rome, where worked for the rest of his life.
While passing through Florence became a witness to the conspiracy against its ruler, Lorenzo de Medici. Though unaware beforehand of the foul attempt against Lorenzo’s life soon afterwards that was led by one of his uncles, Raphael was nevertheless imprisoned and interrogated for a number of weeks, and was in great danger of losing his life. It was not until 1480 that Raffaele was ordained a priest. Like the other papal relatives on whom the pope wasted the income of the Church, Raffaele Riario lived like a great secular lord. He is generally considered a prelate typical of his era: indifferent in religious matters, and a statesman more than a priest.
A number of developments in the fifteenth century cast long shadows into the sixteenth century. These included the charge of heresy that led to the execution of John Hus of Bohemia in 1415. The theological ferment that gave visibility to Hus, plus the Church’s violent reaction in response to them, was a prelude of the bursting forth of the Augustinian friar, Martin Luther exactly a century later.
A fifteenth-century development that revolutionized the rapid and extensive dissemination of theological and social ideas was the first European to use movable type printing, in about the year 1439, by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany, which led to the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. As well, during the fifteenth century there developed in northwest Europe a quiet devotional strain of Christianity so different from the pomp and ceremony of Rome that it seems, with hindsight, part of the complex thread that evolved early in the following century into the Protestant Reformation. But its practitioners would be horrified to see themselves in any such confrontational guise.
Images (above): At left, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and at right Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536).
Known as the devotio moderna (“the modern devotion”), the movement came from the Brethren of the Common Life - a group of both laymen and priests who shared a simple life in imitation of the early Christians, devoting themselves to teaching and care of the poor. A book written during the early fifteenth century called Imitation of Christ - probably by Thomas à Kempis – became an extremely influential manual for Christian devotion of this kind. Without hierarchy and ritual, the emphasis in such a group was on the personal approach to Christ through the intense study of early Christian texts.
Such texts, originally in Greek, had in recent centuries been familiar only in the Latin of the Vulgate. In trying to go back to the early sources, these northern scholars shared an interest with the Classical pioneers of the Renaissance in Italy. The education of Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) in the Netherlands in the 1470s was tinged with the influence of the devotio moderna. Like the brethren, he can be seen as part of the trend towards the Protestant Reformation, although he strenuously avoided endorsing it.
His careful edition of the Greek New Testament is in keeping both with devotio moderna and the Protestant Reformation - though one significant distinction remains. Erasmus translated the Greek in 1516 into Latin. Martin Luther, just six years later, translated it into German.