|Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura|
Exterior in 1911
|English name:||St Agnes Outside the Walls|
|Latin name:||Sanctae Agnetis extra moenia|
|Type:||Parish church, titular church|
|Titular church||Camillo Ruini|
|Built:||342, later rebuilt|
|Address:|| Via Nomentana 364|
(main entrance at Via S Agnese 315)
|Phone:||06 86 10 840 / 06 86 20 54 56|
|Fax:||06 86 10 840 / 06 86 20 54 56 (manual)|
Sant' Agnese fuori le Mura is an ancient church dedicated to the martyr St Agnes, located at Via Nomentana 349 in the Trieste district and the centre of a very important palaeo-Christian funerary complex. The entrance to the Catacombe di Sant'Agnese is in the church, which is parochial and has the dignity of a minor basilica.
St Agnes was a late martyr, and it is unlikely that she was buried on her own on this site in about 304 instead of a in a pre-existing catacomb. It is thought that the catacombs that now exist may date back as far as the mid 3rd century, but dating evidence has been elusive. The earliest dated inscription is from 341, and there are no paintings which could date the catacombs on stylistic grounds. Nothing whatever exists in the documentary sources about the origins of the Christian funerary arrangements here, although a pagan cemetery existed in the 2nd century on the site now occupied by the Basilica Constantiniana. This was discovered in archeological investigations. Christians and pagans could share cemeteries and catacombs in the very early days, as evidenced from the excavations under San Pietro in Vaticano.
The site emerges into history when St Agnes was buried in the catacombs in 304. She is one of the great Roman virgin martyrs, but unfortunately the earliest references to her are not easy to reconcile. The complete legend that has come down to us, and which obviously influenced the works of art featuring her, is from the early 5th century and was published in both Greek and Latin. It seems to be a romance derived from the hints in the earlier sources, and hence unreliable.
The earliest narrative evidence is from St Ambrose, whose homily in her honour from the end of the 4th century describes her as just about at marriageable age, which was twelve in ancient Rome. In custody she refused to marry, which would have commuted her sentence of death as a Christian, and said that she did not want any man looking at her body. She was formally executed with the sword, which indicates that she was from a family of high social status. Further the fact that the body was released for burial, instead of being disposed of with contempt, reinforces this supposition. Hence, we glimpse a cemetery on the site for people of some social standing. Also, the fact that she was allowed by her father to make a public proclamation of Christianity indicates that the family was Christian, and hence the cemetery included Christian burials. Ancient Roman girls were absolutely under the control of their fathers (or nearest male relatives) until they married.
The trouble starts with the poetic epitaph composed for her grave by Pope St Damasus, slightly earlier than Ambrose, which is extant and visible at the basilica's entrance. It describes how the saint, at the first proclamation of the Great Persecution by the emperor Diocletian, rushed into the street to proclaim her Christianity and was seized and burned to death as a result. This fate would have been for a person of lower social status, unless her hostile father permitted it. Ambrose and Damasus obviously had different versions of the story. The epitaph also describes how she was forced to pose nude after her arrest, and preserved her modesty with her very long hair. This episode is familiar in the iconography.
Prudentius, contemporary with Ambrose, adds the detail that the saint was sent to be "exposed in a brothel" before execution, where a young man who looked at her naked was struck blind. This theme is continued in the legendary acta, where her hair grows miraculously to cover her. This event allegedly took place in one of the arch-vaulted chambers under the spectator stands of the Stadium of Domitian, and her execution then occurred in the stadium itself. Just how horrible these chambers were can be realized from the Latin word fornicatio, literally meaning "things taking place under the arches" but giving the English word "fornication". The site of the brothel became the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone (agone means "athletics", not "agony"), and the stadium is the present Piazza Navona. The church preserves the alleged head of the saint, while the rest of her remains are at the basilica.
It may be noted that being "exposed in a brothel" in reality did not involve pornographic modelling. It is known to have been inflicted on Christian women of low or no social status, such as slaves, and entailed being chained to a bed and raped by the brothel's clients until death through exhaustion. One scholarly opinion is that the Agnes story has its ultimate source in a young Christian girl who was abducted, molested and killed in this way, but this is controversial and the present consensus is that the Ambrose version is probably nearest the truth.
The Constantinian periodEdit
According to the Liber Pontificalis, the first basilica dedicated to St Agnes was founded at the site of her grave by emperor Constantine's daughter Constantina in 342. (Her name was mistakenly rendered as "Constantia" in later centuries in confusion with her aunt, the emperor's sister.) The foundation was attested to in an inscription, which is now lost. It is thought (without positive proof) that the very impressive funerary complex was originally intended for the emperor himself, but was inherited by his daughter after he founded Constantinople and was buried there.
Like San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, the complex was built partly into the side of a hill nearest the street, and partly out in the open on the site of the old pagan cemetery. The understanding of what was originally built depends on the right interpretation of the Basilica Constantiniana, which is the dominant structure. This enormous building was either a vast basilical church, or (as seems more likely) an arcaded funerary enclosure rather like the Quadriporticus at the modern cemetery of the Campo Verano. Attached to it was the circular mausoleum of Constantina, the present church of Santa Costanza. If the large structure was not a church, it is very probable that the present basilica is on the site of the original church built with the rest of the complex in the 5th century. Unfortunately, at present this cannot be proved.
The Liber Pontificalis records that the complex had a circular baptistery like the one at the Lateran, but the site of this has never been established.
Pope Symmachus is recorded as having restored "the basilica" (whatever that was) at the start of the 6th century. In the early 7th century, under pope Honorius I (625–638), a completely new church was built, and this is the edifice that we have now.
In 723 the Lombards pillaged and wrecked the church, and so Pope Hadrian I (772–795) ordered a restoration. It was again repaired under Pope Leo III (750-816). By this time, the basilica with its attendant monastery was isolated in open countryside some distance from the Porta Pia and the security of the city walls, and so it and those visiting it were vulnerable to marauders for centuries. However, unlike other pilgrimage basilicas over shrines of martyrs such as Basilica di San Valentino, this one was always kept open even in the periods of greatest disorder.
The monastery was originally staffed by monks, but these were replaced by Benedictine nuns in the Middle Ages. It is listed in the Catalogue of Turin, c. 1320, as having 40 religious sisters. Oddly, despite the original tomb of the saint being kept accessible, the rest of the catacombs were sealed off and forgotten. Perhaps the religious community early on were worried about their being used as shelter by undesirables.
The basilica became one of the major pilgrimage destinations in Rome in the Middle Ages, but it was not one of the Seven Churches which pilgrims needed to visit to gain their plenary indulgence. They came here instead because of their devotion to the saint.
In 1479 Pope Sixtus IV shut down the nunnery, and gave the monastery to the Canons Regular of the Lateran, who have been in charge ever since. Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II, undertook a thorough restoration of the monastery in 1479 and ordered the campanile to be built in 1503.
Before the end of the 16th century, the basilica was inserted into the side of the hill with the ground level being at the floor level of the present galleries on all sides including the façade. Entrance was into the galleries. This was obviously inconvenient, and in 1590 Cardinal Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici (the future Pope Leo XI) ordered a broad staircase of 45 white marble steps to be built from the monastery down into the right side of the church's narthex. This remains the main ceremonial entrance, and its existence meant that the façade was left mostly unmolested by both Baroque embellishers and 20th century antiquarians. Also, he ordered the hillside in front of the façade to be dug away and an access stairway to be provided from the present Via di Sant'Agnese to a sunken courtyard in front of the basilica. The processional staircase was adorned by epigraphs found in the course of excavations, including the famous one by Pope Damasus.
In 1606 the exposed rafters of the roof were concealed by a new flat wooden ceiling, carved and coffered. The present colour scheme of this dates from the 19th century restoration. The galleries were given ceilings as well at about the same time (the aisles below had already been vaulted, in the 15th century).
In 1615 Pope Paul V had the relics of St Agnes brought from her tomb, where they had been for over 1200 years, and enshrined them under the high altar. The baldacchino was provided then. With her was placed those of St Emerentiana, another virgin martyr whose true story is unknown. The legend describes her as the foster-sister of St Agnes, who was spotted praying at her tomb by hostile pagans who pelted her with rocks and beat her to death. These details have been rejected by the revised Roman martyrology, but may witness to a memory of the original state of the catacombs as having been shared by pagans and Christians.
Between the 17th and the 19th centuries, six side chapels were added to the fabric. In 1728 the medieval Cosmatesque floor was ripped up and replaced with a brick one -a tragedy, because its richness rivalled that of San Clemente. This, in turn, was replaced by a marble floor in the last major restoration, in 1855 under Pope Pius IX (1846–1878). In the same project the monastery was also restored and provided with a new formal entrance on the main street, and the basilica was embellished with frescoes (which have an ambivalent reputation at best, but which survived suggestions that they be removed in the 20th century). Virtually all of the previous fresco decorations have been lost; it is known that work on these took place in the 12th, 13th, 14th and 17th centuries. Also, the galleries had their ceilings replaced by vaults.
In the process of the restoration, Pope Pius escaped injury when the floor of an aula in the monastery collapsed while he was making a presentation to junior seminarians. Several of the latter were injured.
The full extent of the catacombs were only finally realized in the 1860's.
The 20th century saw little change to the church itself, except that a few minor details were removed from the façade. However, somebody saw fit to plant two cypresses in front of the façade without perhaps realizing how big they would get, and they now obscure the view. The surrounding area before 1870 used to be entirely rural, and the parish used to be large but thinly populated. Since then, it has become completely urbanized and the basilica is now surrounded by a suburban sprawl of reasonable status but little interest.
The developed legend of St Agnes describes her as her foster-sister who was stoned to death by pagans while praying at her grave. She was in reality a martyr originally buried in a separate cemetery, called the Coemeterium Maius at a locality referred to as ad Capream or "at the roe-deer [inn?]". The reference is from the Martyrology of Jerome of the late 6th century, and with her are listed as fellow martyrs Victor, Felix, Alexander and Papias.
The location of these catacombs was further along the Via Nomentana, around its present junction with the Via Asmara. There has been some archeological investigation although not recently, and there is now nothing to see. A basilica dedicated to her was certainly here by the 7th century, when it was part of the pilgrim itinerary, but this church was destroyed in the 9th century when the relics of the saint were moved to join St Agnes.
The monastery is the first part of the complex that you come to when arriving from the direction of the city centre. It was heavily restored in the 17th and 19th centuries, but contains mediaeval fabric and architecture with old frescoes still being found.
The main entrance from the Via Nomentana was provided with a portico in the 19th century. The doorcase is in marble, and above it is a representation of Our Lady being venerated by SS Agatha and Emerentiana. This is on the tympanum of an arch continued as a barrel-vaulted canopy, supported by two rather spindly Doric columns in grey marble with silly little rosettes on the neck-bands of the capitals. The architect got the idea for this from some now lost detailing on the Porticus Iulia in the Roman Forum. On the outer edge of the canopy is an inscription commemorating the completion of the restoration by Pope Pius IX in 1856.
This is one of the two ways of getting into the church. Straight ahead is the outer courtyard of the monastery, dominated by a rather squat mediaeval fortified tower. The fabric of this contains fragments of ancient carved stonework. The inner cloister is through to the right, and has a pleasant garden. In the north-east corner is the ceremonial staircase to the church.
You approach this ceremonial entrance through a 16th century portico, followed by a long set of marble steps installed in 1590. Notice that you walk down the stairs from ground level to get to the church - it was built at the level of the first catacomb galleries. You can see on the walls flanking the stairs fragments of inscriptions and sculptured elements from the catacomb, including part of the first shrine of St Agnes. However, using this entrance means that you see little of the basilica's exterior.
The other way in is through the nave façade. Continue down the Via Nomentana from the monastery entrance, and you will soon see the ancient apse of the basilica on your left. Next to it on the left is the campanile, and on the right is a fine Baroque doorway leading into the church's left-hand nave gallery; this entrance is very rarely used nowadays. Then turn left down the Via di Sant'Agnese, which has a steep slope to the level of the basilica. 1603
There are remains visible to the west of the garden of the great funerary basilica built by Constantine. It may not have been a church, but rather a covered cemetery. The only part that is well preserved is the mausoleum of Costantina, Constantine's daugther, and this is now the church of Santa Costanza. The circular building has a well preserved 4th century mosaic. Her porphyry sarcophagus has been moved to the Vatican Museums, and a copy replaces it. To get to these monuments, follow the path leading to the right from the courtyard, then bear left.
This is a classic aisled basilica without a separate presbyterium but with an external semi-circular apse. All the external walls are in brick, and the roofs of nave, aisles and apse are pitched and tiled. The nave walls have large arched clerestory windows, and the rooflines have cornices having dentillations below a row of little corbels.
There are no windows in the apse, but the altar end of the church has an interesting set of blocked windows visible from the main street. There is a central round one, flanked by a pair of arched ones, and they are framed by tiles laid edge-on to the outside. The arched windows were later replaced by two smaller ones within, and these in turn were blocked. The cornice runs across the gable to create a false pediment, and within this is a little round window which is still glazed.
The campanile looks as if it is of two periods. The tall first storey is of rough brown brick with bits of stone poking out in places, and looks like a medieval part of the monastery. A blocked rectangular window is at the top on each face, and the storey ends in a projecting stone cornice. Above this, two further storeys are executed more carefully in thin red bricks, and both storeys have a large arched soundhole on each face. These soundholes have stone tracery forming two smaller arches within each, topped by the coat of arms of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere. At the top of the second storey there is a decorative motif on each face, consisting of a pair of inset pottery dishes of one colour each, green or blue and in between these a club-armed Greek cross incised into the brickwork. Several of these dishes have fallen out. Before the 19th century restoration, the campanile was in danger of collapse and was propped by sloping buttresses. The lower sound-holes had also been blocked up to add strength.
The Baroque entrance from the street has a porch with a triangular pediment having a broken cornice. This is supported by a pair of grey marble Composite columns set on the low walls flanking the pathway to the entrance. The entrance doorway itself has a segmental pediment. The low gate piers on the street, with stone balls on top, are part of the original composition.
Of the three side chapels flanking the Via di Sant'Agnese, one has a saucer dome and the two further ones have pepperpot turrets which are 19th century. Further on down the slope, the modern single-storey building attached to the side of the façade of the basilica is the entrance vestibule to the catacombs. It replaced a two-storey house for the parish priest, which was pulled down to widen the street.
The most impressive feature of the façade itself is the two-storey narthex. The first storey is rendered in rather patchy stonework, and the second one is in brick. There are three entrances, the two side ones much smaller than the main one, and these retain Baroque marble doorcases. The main entrance has a relieving arch above it, and it can be seen that this is not symmetrical with the door. Before the 20th century, there used to be a relief of the saint in a complex Baroque frame above this entrance. The second storey has two smallish arched windows flanking what is, incredibly, a blocked doorway. Before the surrounding ground was taken away to the floor level of the basilica, this was the ancient main entrance into the church. It leads into what is called the matroneum or women's gallery.
Over the narthex, which has a sloping tiled roof, can be seen the actual nave frontage with the tops of three arched windows. The gable is treated in the same way as that at the other end of the church, with the cornice forming a false pediment, and here also the gable itself contains a round window or oculus.
The church has a nave and two aisles, on the traditional basilical plan. The wooden coffered ceiling of the nave, from 1606, is richly carved and has a figure of St Agnes in the centre. The paintwork and gilding is, however, from the 19th century.
The Corinthian columns in the nave arcades number fourteen, are of precious marble; the four by the choir in the rare Porta Santa, the two next of pavonazzetto and the last eight of grey breccia from Serravezza. These were all pillaged from ancient buildings, and have matching capitals except for the four in Porta Santa which have crude replacements of the 7th century.
The church has a gallery over the entrance narthex, which was either built for the use of women as in the early Eastern tradition, or to provide an entrance from a higher level since the church was built against the side of a hill. It is supported by a further two columns, of black granite. There are also side galleries, and the left hand one has the entrance at its far end onto the Via Nomentana. These galleries have their own arcades, matching those of the nave, and these are supported by smaller Corinthian columns in grey marble.
The frescoes above the nave arcades and on the triumphal arch are 19th century. The former are by Andrea Busiri Vici, and possibly cover remains of the original medieval fresco cycles. They consist of tondo portraits of popes and benefactors. The triumphal arch depicts martyrdom of St Agnes, and is by Pietro Gagliardi.
The lower part of the apse is panelled in Classical style, using marble and porphyry. The Byzantine-style mosaic in the upper part is from c. 625, and depicts St Agnes being given the crown of martyrdom. The hand of God emerges from the top of the composition holding a wreath, above a dark blue band containing stars which represents the empyrean. She is dressed as an Augusta, a Byzantine empress, and is robed in purple with a jewelled stole and red shoes. The stole is mostly concealed by a massive omophorion also encrusted in jewels, over her left arm she has a towel and she stands on a scarlet rug. According to legend she appeared like this eight days after her death, holding a white lamb. She is flanked by Pope Honorius, holding a model of the church, and Pope Symmachus who holds a jewelled gospel-book. They are also both vested in purple and wear campagi or liturgical sandals. The plain gold background to these figures is very effective.
A very interesting parallel to this mosaic used to exist in the lost palaeochristian basilica of Sant'Eufemia on the Esquiline. There the patron saint was also depicted as a Byzantine empress in the apse mosaic, again being crowned with a wreath by the hand of God. Surprisingly however, instead of being flanked by a pair of saintly popes she was flanked by a pair of snakes raised ready to strike. This mosaic, possibly by the same artists, was lost when the church was demolished in the 16th century but a drawing of it by Alfonso Chacón survives.
The baldacchino over the high altar dates from 1614, displaying polychrome marble work. The four porphyry Ionic columns are, however, ancient. Over the tabernacle is a statue of St Agnes, by Nicolas Cordier of 1605. He obtained an ancient alabaster torso, and added the extremities in bronze.
You must ask if you wish to be admitted to St Agnes' tomb beneath the high altar. She rests with her traditional 'milk-sister' St Emerentiana, the daughter of her wet-nurse in the legend, who was transferred here in the 9th century after her own basilica was ruined.
There are six side-chapels, three on each side leading off the aisles.
On the right side are the chapels dedicated to St Augustine, The Holy Deacons (SS Stephen and Lawrence) and St Emerentiana. The central one has a fine marble relief of the two saints thought to be by Andrea Bregno but probably of his school, as well as a head of Christ possibly by Nicolas Cordier. The latter is very important in art history, as it is thought to be a copy of a now lost original by Michelangelo.
On the right side are the chapels of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Our Lady of Pompeii and the Daughters of Mary. The central one has the only early fresco surviving, of the 15th century and showing the Madonna and Child. On the side walls are frescoes by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari.
The entrance to the catacombs is in a room off the near end of the left hand aisle, and hopefully you will find here someone who will sell you a ticket and give you a tour. This may have to be in Italian only.
The layout of the catacombs as they now are has been disrupted by the insertion of the basilica into the area occupied by the tomb of St Agnes. However the oldest zone, a small and neat grid of tunnels under the Via di Sant'Agnese, is the first to be entered from the left aisle. It may date from the early or mid 3rd century, but there is no dating evidence in the form of frescoes or dated inscriptions. The second zone is in two sections, one on the further side of the first zone and the other running off beyond the apse of the basilica under the present Via Nomentana. There used to be entrances to the latter from the apse area. This zone is perhaps about the year 300, or may be contemporary with the imperial complex. The last zone started from an entrance near Santa Costanza, and occupies the area in the direction of the basilica, under the monastery and also under the Via Nomentana where it joins up with the second zone. This zone dates to around the year 400, and incorporates several pagan hypogea from the original cemetery.
As mentioned, the catacombs lack frescoes but one interesting point about them is that a lot of the loculi or grave-cuts have never been disturbed, and retain their original fill or blocking slabs. They were only rediscovered by Armellini in the 1860's, and many of the small objects that he dug out of the silt that filled the tunnels are now in the Vatican Museums. The full extent of the catacombs is not yet known, and tunnels of the third zone were excavated as late as the 1970's.
On 21 January, the feast day of St Agnes, lambs are blessed here (agnus is Latin for lamb). They are then taken to the Benedictine nuns of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, who care for them and shear, spin and weave their wool when a new pallium is needed. If you wish to attend the ceremony, it is best to apply for a reserved place.
The nuns at Santa Cecilia are the descendants of those who used to be in charge of the basilica before the Lateran Canons took over.
It used to be that the lambs were shorn and slaughtered just before Easter every year, and the Pope would have them roasted for his Easter Day banquet. This no longer happens.
The feast of St Emerentiana is celebrated on 23 January. The main church of the suburb of Trieste, to the west and north of the basilica, is nearby and is dedicated to her -see Sant'Emerenziana a Tor Fiorenza. Otherwise, she is no longer celebrated liturgically in the Roman Catholic Church.
For times of Masses and other liturgical events, see the official diocesan web-page.
Because there is nothing else worth seeing in the neighbourhood, large tour groups and non-religious tourists tend not to visit and hence leave the basilica to the serious art students and pilgrims. A visit to the catacombs here can be a very pleasant contrast to the crowds at the other public catacombs, especially on the Via Appia. On the other hand, a tour guide who can speak English is not guaranteed.
The present opening hours are 07:30 to 12:00 and 16:00 to 19:30; beware of the extended lunch break.
The quickest way to get here is the express bus line 60, which calls at Colosseo and Piazza Venezia. Get off at Viale XXI Aprile, and walk a short distance down the Via Nomentana away from the city centre and past the monastery.
If you are on a catacomb crawl, it is possible to do this set of catacombs and those at Santa Priscilla in one morning without going back to the city centre and out again. You have to walk through the Trieste suburb, which is not a great distance but requires a map. If you do this, you will be following the 7th century pilgrim itinerary. The present Via di Sant'Agnese back then was the Vicolo di Sant'Agnese, and continued in a straight line to the Via Salaria. There was also a Via di Sant'Agnese, which ran from the Via Nomentana to San Lorenzo fuori le Mura exactly parallel to the present Viale XXI Aprile but about 150 metres to the west.
- ↑ Liber Pontificalis, XXIII, Sylvester, ch. 23
Il Complesso Monumentale di Sant'Agnese by P. A. Frutaz, Rome 1976.
La basilica costantiniana di Sant’Agnese: lavori archeologici e di restauro. A cura di Marina Magnani Cianetti, Carlo Pavolini. Milano: Electa, 2004. 175 p.
I Restauri Romani Promossi Dal Cardinale Fabrizio Veralli in Sant'Agnese E Santa Costanza e La Cappella in Sant'Agostino by Maria Barbara Guerrieri Borsoi. Published in: Bollettino d'Arte v. 91 (July/December 2006) p. 77-98