We take bus 82 or 90 from the Piazza dei Cinquecento towards the Sant Agnese fuori le Mura with the catacombs, the Santa Costanza and the Porta Pia. On our way to the Sant Agnese, we head past the Via XX Settembre to find the famous Porta Pia by Michelangelo at the Via Nomentana. We’ll have another look at this city gate on our way back: the Porta Pia by Michelangelo.
To our left at the Via Nomentana we find the church devoted to St. Agnes. St. Agnes of Rome was venerated as a martyr from the 4th century onward. She refused to marry, given how as a thirteen year old girl she already devoted her love to the Lord. Agnes:
His mother is a virgin, His father has no relations with women. Angels serve Him, the sun and moon admire Him. His beauty. His power is endless, His wealth is eternal. His smell awakes the dead, His touch comforts the ill. His love is pure, His Touch divine, intimacy with Him is virginal. It should be clear to the reader that Agnes speaks of God. Needless to say, things did not go well for the infatuated son, the devil claimed him.
The son’s father, he son’s father, the stadtholder, could not sit idly by, and told Agnes: The choice is yours. Bring a sacrifice together with the Vestal virgins if you value your virginity, or you will prostitute yourself along with the other whores. ‘I will not sacrifice anything to your gods,’ she answered, ‘nor be desecrated by the filth of others, because I have a guardian with me: an angel of the lord. At hearing this, the stadtholder ordered her to undress and have her taken to a brothel, but the Lord made her hair so dense that it covered her body better than clothes could. At the disgraceful brother, she found an angel of the Lord who awaited her. He bathed the house in light and crafted her a sparkling white gown. That is how the brothel turned into a house of prayer. It was even true that whoever revered the astonishing light, would leave the building more pure than when he or she first entered. After Agnes revived the stadtholder’s son, the stadtholder did not dare to kill Agnes. Nor was he prepared to release her, and so he transferred his position as stadtholder to Aspasius. This successor did take measures, and… ‘[…] had her thrown into a burning fire, but the flames dispersed and instead burned the rebellious people while avoiding Agnes. At seeing this, Aspasius ordered her throat cut by the sword. And so the radiating and blushing Bride devoted herself as His fiancée and as a martyr to Himself. She died a martyr’s death, as people believe, during the times of Constantine the Great, whose rule began in 309.’ (transl. N/N)
According to a 6th century legend. From: Jacobus de Voragine, ‘The hand of God The best hagiographies from the Legenda Aurea,'(translation by Vincent Hunink and Mark Nieuwenhuis) Atheneum-Polak&Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2006 pp. 31-34.
The Legenda Aurea was written in 1275 and is a compilation of many older saint stories. In the Middle Ages, the lamb is the symbol of Agnes. The lamb refers to the Lamb of God: Agnus dei. Two churches are devoted to her in Rome, the very church we now face and the Sant’Agnese in Agona at the Piazza Navona, built by Borromini. ‘Our saint’ was tortured and died at the place where the church by Borromini now stands. In the second church devoted to the holy Agnes where we find ourselves on this Saturday afternoon, she was buried underneath the altar (her skull is kept in the Sant’Agnese in Agona). Her liberated slave lies next to Agnes: the holy Emerentiana. She dared to pray at Agnes’ tomb. This was of course forbidden, and so Emerentiana was stoned to death. She too was buried underneath the main altar. When we leave the bus and cross the road we face the apse side of the church. For the most part, the church lies buried in the hill. If we walk into the little street, the Via de Sant’Agnese, we first enter a court with an adjacent monastery. We then go down the stairs, enter the narthex and then enter the Sant’Agnese.
Anonymous (follower of: Maarten van Heemskerck) ‘View of the churches of Santa Constanza, Sant’ Agnese fuori le mura and the remains of the Basilica of Sant ‘Agnese’ c. 1560, h.95 mm x w.162 mm, pen and brown ink, framing lines in pencil, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam
A church was already built here in 324, commissioned by Constantina, the daughter of emperor Constantine. In the 7th century, Honorius I built a new church instead. The church was placed atop the catacombs. A part of the terrain first had to be deepened to accommodate it, at the expense at several tombs. The altar was placed straight above the tomb of the holy Agnes. Despite many subsequent restorations, the interior is still very reminiscent of early-Christian architecture. The church has three naves and the columns are re-used classical columns. At the walls and above the aisles we find a colonnade that runs past the back wall: a so-called tribune. This space was often used for women to allow them to separate themselves from the men. The tribune was accessable through the street side. Galleries were common practice particularly in Byzantine churches. This is why the architect is believed by many to have been a Greek.
The semi-dome of the apse still shows the original 7th century mosaic. The holy Agnes stands between Honorius, who offers a model of the church, and the Pope Symmachus on the right, the pope who had the first church in this location restored. The very top depicts the hand of God. He awards Agnes with the victor’s crown. The text at the bottom edge does not just list the monogram of Honorius, but also that he spent some 252 pounds of silver on the construction of this basilisk.
On the spot, we are given an explanation of why this involves a typical Byzantine mosaic and how mosaics are made. Typical for Rome was the use of spolia. A sculpture of Agnes, for instance, stands triumphantically on the main altar and of course prominent in the richly decorated ceiling. At a closer glance, we notice that ‘our saint’ is made of an antique alabaster torso. Bronze hands, feet and a head were added in the 17th century.
When examining the ciborium from 1614 above the altar, the four porphyry columns appear to be much older. They likely date back to the 7th century. Every year on January 21st, two lambs are carried into the church atop a flower-decorated wooden plateau. The lambs are given a blessing by the priest in front of the altar. The sheep are then taken to the pope, who blesses them once more. The nuns of the S. Cecilia in Trastevere craft their wool into palliums, or pallia. These are decorations worn by arch-bishops or regular bishops.
Before we leave the church, we descend into the undercroft to reach the catacombs. The entrance to H. Agnes’ catacombs is found left of the aisle. Three Hellenistic reliefs were found below the stairs that lead to the tombs, which can now be seen at the Palazzo Spada. The Roman ground consists mostly of tuff. This type of stone is well suited for carving out hallways or even spacious rooms. The tombs are oftentimes small, some of them adorned with interesting wall paintings. One of the most interesting paintings is a depiction of a man who hacks away at the tuff with his pickaxe.
A small explanation is given about what the depictions mean. In the 4th century, the century in which Agnes was buried here, Christians did not yet have their own visual language. They resorted to classical examples. In addition, the Christians still struggled with the fourth commandment and the old testament, where Exodus 20: 4 lists the following:
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
The starting letter of the Greek word for fish, ICHTHUS, was interpreted as Iesous CHristos THeou Uios Soter, or Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour. Moreover, the fish played an important role in several Christian miracles including the miraculous fish catch or the miraculous feeding of the 5000. The anchor, similarly, was a beloved symbol as shown here at the basilisk of the holy Agnes.
After a tour by a local guide, we head back up. We exit the church and take a path to turn left and find ourselves at the Santa Costanza. This mausoleum was built for Constantina, a daughter of Roman emperor Constantine, in the early 4th century.