There are two churches in Rome dedicated to Saint Agnes, a very popular early fourth century martyr. The best-known of the two, the Sant’Agnese in Agone, can be found on the Piazza Novana in the historical centre of Rome. This is the site of the ancient Stadium of Domitianus, where according to tradition Agnes was executed. The other church can be found outside the walls – fuori le Mura – and is, in my view, of much greater historical interest. It is located on the Via Nomentana, some two kilometres from the Porta Pia. This is quite far from the centre of Rome, and as a result, not many tourists visit the Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura. This is of course good news for history enthusiasts. The best way to get there is to take Bus 60 from the Piazza Venezia, which will drop you off near the church.
The Constantinian basilica
Tradition dictates that Agnes was a young Roman woman, perhaps just twelve years old, who was martyred in 304 during anti-Christian persecutions. As a Roman citizen she would have been beheaded with the sword, but the story of her life was embellished in later centuries. She was said to have been paraded naked before a hostile crowd, with her hair miraculously growing longer to cover her breasts and nether regions. We can dismiss this version of events and still accept that she was a real person. The name ‘Agnes’ means ‘pure’ in Greek, but it was quickly associated with the Latin word agnus, meaning ‘lamb’. Saint Agnes is often depicted with a lamb in Christian art. Although this is not the case in the apse mosaic of the Sant’Agnese (see below), every year on 21 January – Saint Agnes’ feast day – lambs are blessed here. They are subsequently taken to the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere to be shorn. The wool is then used for weaving new pallia for the Pope and newly appointed archbishops.
After her execution, Agnes was buried in the catacombs on the Via Nomentana. A map of this immense subterranean funerary complex can be found here. A few decades later, the emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) or his daughter Constantina (died 354) had a large funerary basilica built here. The basilica was not built over the saint’s tomb, but rather next to it. It was not used for religious services, but served as an enclosure for the tombs inside it. The basilica was furthermore ‘circiform’: it was built in the shape of a traditional Roman circus. The aisles continued behind the apse, which allowed people visiting the complex to go around the tombs in solemn procession. Funerary meals, copied from pagan religions, were also presumably held here, until this tradition was actively suppressed by the Church in the fifth century. Other examples of funerary basilicas are (the predecessor of) San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros.
It is not entirely clear whether it was Constantine himself or his daughter who gave the order to construct the Constantinian basilica. If Constantine himself was responsible, he must have commissioned the basilica before 330, when he moved to Constantinople. However, information at the site itself suggests that Constantina had the building erected between 338 and 351, before she moved to Antiochia with her second husband Gallus. Although the basilica is ruined, its remains are very impressive. The building must have been huge once, measuring some 98 by 40 metres. The remains are now hemmed in between tennis courts, a football pitch, trees and the Santa Costanza, now a church, but previously a mausoleum for Constantina and her sister Helena.
It can be difficult to get a good view of the basilica. In fact, I had to climb a wall near the Santa Costanza to see it. I highly recommend looking up the basilica on Google Maps, so that it can be viewed from above. It is also a good idea to walk to the Via Bressanone behind the basilica, which is the best spot to admire the remains of the semi-circular end. It looks to be pretty intact, although whatever decorative elements were once there are now all gone. Whether the building was entirely roofed is up for debate. It is plausible that in fact only the aisles were covered.
The Honorian basilica
The church of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura is slightly to the east of the ruins of the Constantinian basilica. It is possible that Pope Damasus I (366-384) founded a proper church here during his pontificate. Pope Symmachus (498-514) supposedly restored this church in the early sixth century. At the moment there is no tangible evidence for either the founding or the restoration, but later generations certainly believed that Symmachus was active here, as he is depicted in the seventh century apse mosaic of the present church.
The history of this church starts with Pope Honorius I (625-638), to whom we can attribute its construction. He can also be seen in the apse mosaic, holding a miniature model of the church in his hands (see above). The mosaic features Saint Agnes in the centre, dressed as a Roman empress. The Hand of God is above her, presenting her with a martyr’s crown. The mosaic is the most ancient piece of art inside the church. It appears to be in excellent condition, and I assume it was restored on more than one occasion.
During the Middle Ages, the church built by Pope Honorius quickly became a popular destination for pilgrims. As stated above, it was about two kilometres outside the city walls, so people wanting to visit Saint Agnes’ tomb had to travel through the country. It seems that the monastery adjacent to the church was fortified, but the site apparently did not develop into a little walled town such as at the churches of San Paolo and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. The complex was looted during the Sack of Rome in 1527 and subsequently restored. An interesting feature of the church is that it was built into the side of a hill. As a consequence, its floor is way below street level. This is not the case in the adjacent monastery, so people taking the side entrance from the monastery into the church actually ended up in the galleries above the aisles. This problem was solved in 1590 when Cardinal Alessandro Ottaviano de’ Medici had a staircase built running down from the monastery into the right aisle of the Sant’Agnese. It comprises 45 white marble steps and it is decorated with many archaeological finds.
The good cardinal later also cleared parts of the hill at the front and side of the church, allowing the construction of a little piazza and side chapels. The church’s facade is an interesting reminder of his intervention. It is completely undecorated, with the lower part made of stone and the upper part of brick. One of the reasons it was left alone is that the side entrance was much more important because of the marvellous staircase. Note that above the current central entrance there is a blocked portal. This was the original central entrance. People entering here would descend into the nave of the church. When the courtyard was created, this entrance could no longer be used – it was much too high – and a new and lower entrance had to be created. Cardinal de’ Medici was ultimately rewarded for his work: in 1605, he became Pope Leo XI. Unfortunately, he died within a month after his election.
In 1615, Pope Paulus V (1605-1621) had Saint Agnes’ relics taken from her tomb and enshrined under the high altar. In the same year, the baldachin that we see today was erected over the altar. The last major restoration of the Sant’Agnese was ordered by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) and executed in 1855. This restoration provided the church with its current marble floor and the frescoes above the arches and on the triumphal arch. The coffered ceiling was installed in 1606, but it was repainted and gilded during Pope Pius’ renovation. Regrettably, almost nothing remains of the original fresco decorations in the church. We know that frescoes were painted here between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, but all that is left is an icon of the Madonna breastfeeding the Child in the second chapel on the left. It dates from the fifteenth century and was painted by an unknown artist.
I visited the church on 6 January 2017, which happened to be Epiphany, the feast of the three Magi. A special mass was about to start – this is an active parish church! – so I did not have an opportunity to visit the catacombs, which are open to the public. Fortunately, I had plenty of time to visit the Santa Costanza next door, to which I will dedicate a separate post.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 264;
- Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 283-284;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 244;
- Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura on Churches of Rome Wiki.