The monastic buildings that make up the complex of Sant’Agostino dominate the Sasso Barisano from a rocky spur, surrounded by sheer drops.
The monastery was founded in 1592 by monks belonging to the Order of Hermits, who annexed it to the church dedicated to Santa Maria delle Grazie, that had been built by the Augustinians over an ancient C11th hypogeum dedicated to St William. A terrible earthquake in 1734 destroyed the entire complex, which, once restored, became the headquarters of the General Chapter of the Augustinian Order. The church was consecrated by Mons. Antonio Antinori in 1750. Subversive legislation contrived to have the convent suppressed, after which it served as an army shelter before becoming the prison headquarters and later a care home for the elderly. It is now the headquarters of the Soprintendenza per I Beni Architettonici e Ambientali.
The original nucleus of the Augustinian settlement lies beneath the present building, in a series of hypogea-rooms fitted for convent life, of which all that remains is a crypt accessed from the present-day church, to the left of the main altar. This is the hypogea-church dedicated to St William of Vercelli (1085-1142), who came to work out his apostleship in Southern Italy.
On the right-hand wall traces of ancient frescoes have survived, along with more recent, C17th decorations: one can still make out a Madonna and Child, a Handing-over of the Rule of St. Augustine and a Trinity depicting Father and Son both wearing crowns with the dove of the Holy Spirit on a golden orb.
The façade is a fine example of late-Baroque architecture. It is articulated over two levels and enclosed by paired pilasters, crowned with a multilinear entablature. At ground floor level, the portal is surmounted by a niche containing a statue of St. Augustine: the Saint. The iconography is traditional, he has a long beard and a lean face, he is dressed in a loose mantle with his mitre on his head and he holds a model of the church in his left hand.
Above the cornice there is a niche containing the statue of a Bishop Saint with his hand raised in blessing with statues of Ss. Peter and Paul, of the kind produced by the Persio family, on either side.
Between the church and the monastery is the limestone campanile, which is a parallelepiped with a single hole pierced in each side.
The church is in the shape of a Latin Cross and comprises a single nave with side altars, broken up by piers with half columns, pilasters and capitals decorated with acanthus leaves. Some of the altars are made of limestone and are the work of local artists, others in polychrome marble and white stucco are by Neapolitan carvers, created between 1748 and 1749.
The first altar on the left is of carved stone and is painted in late-Baroque style. Above it hangs a canvas framed by cherubs, scrolls and leaves, depicting a crucifixion with Mary Magdalene, St John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross; lower down there is a painting of an Augustinian nun with St. Rita.
The second altar on the left, dedicated to Mary, the Virgin Mother of Grace, is in fine polychrome with stylish inlaid marble leaves and fruit. There is a fresco over the altar, painted in 1595, of Mary, the Virgin Mother of Grace and the Christ Child raising His hand in blessing. The third altar is dominated by a canvas portraying St. Nicholas of Tolentino with his trademark book and white lily, St. Vitus with his dogs, the Madonna and Child, St. Apollonia and St Catherine with the souls in Purgatory. At the centre of the cymatium there is a medallion figuring a cross, a crown, a lily and a palm. The rest of the walls are decorated with tempera. A wooden polychrome statue of St Apollonia wearing a golden tunic and a red cloak is the work of Neapolitan sculptors.
Between the second and the third altar there is a wooden C18th pulpit composed of a confessional and a baldachin, with a central medallion.
In the transept to the left of the main altar, surmounted by a hemispherical cupola, there is a late C17th statue of St. Vitus. The statue on the right is of St Augustine combating Heresy which lies at his feet dressed in women’s clothing, dating from the C18th.
At the end of the presbytery is the wooden choir with its 14 stalls, divided by piers topped with shells and scrolls. The polychrome main altar of inlaid marble is in front of it, on top of which stands a wooden C16th crucifix.
Behind the altar, higher up and protected by an inlaid wooden balustrade, is a 1770 pipe organ, gilded and painted, built by the Liguori brothers from Montemurro. The chancel is of the same period.
The altars on the right are of carved and painted stone and are conspicuously late-Baroque, as are the subjects of the paintings.
On the first altar, there is a canvas depicting St. Francis of Paola, St. Paschal Baylon, St. Leonard and, above, St. Joseph and St. Anne.
Two angels are holding up the picture of Mary, the Virgin Mother of Grace. The painting on the second altar is of the Holy Trinity with St. Agatha on the left, St. Lucy suspended among the clouds, St. Hilary kneeling and St. Biagio. The third altar is surmounted by a canvas of Mary, the Virgin Mother of Grace, with St. Augustine, St. Monica and a Bishop Saint below.
To the right of the entrance there is a valuable baptismal font, made of stone from San Pietro Barisano.
The Augustinian Crest: Jesus’ heart pierced by an arrow above a book and belt, is on the interior façade.