St. Agnes Outside the Walls

Built above a series of catacombs, St. Agnes Outside the Walls is a lovely and seldom visited church, a bit outside of the historic district.  Nearby is the magnificent circular Mausoleum of Costanza that I wrote about earlier this year, so a trip here is truly worthwhile.

The church is dedicated to Agnes, a pious young Christian girl believed to have been born in Rome around 290 C.E., and who was martyred at age 12 on January 21, 304.

Saint Agnes by Domenichino
Saint Agnes by Domenichino

The story goes that Agnes had refused to marry because she had devoted her soul to God.  A jilted suitor informed the authorities that Agnes was a Christian.  Agnes was dragged naked through the streets to a brothel, but her hair grew and covered her body, preserving her modesty.  When a brothel patron attempted to rape her, he was struck blind, leaving her chastity intact.  She was sentenced to death by burning, but the wood pyre would not burn.  Eventually, however, the poor girl was executed by the sword of a soldier.

Agnes is the patron saint of virgins, engaged couples, and, sadly enough, rape survivors.  Her symbol is a lamb, which she is often depicted with.  Sometimes she appears with a palm frond. Each year on her feast day (January 21), two lambs are blessed, and their wool is woven into a vestment for the pope.

The church we see today is largely from the 7th century and was built by Pope Honorius I.  It is not particularly interesting from the outside, as it’s part of a mishmash of a complex added onto many times over.  But it is lovely on the inside.  The church sits a bit beneath the current street level.  You enter on one side down a flight of shallow steps, where many interesting ancient plaques adorn the walls).  The other entrance is from a garden in the back (more on that in a later post).

Inside, the church has a magnificent carved wooden ceiling,

Carved wooden ceiling of St. Agnes Outside the Walls
Carved wooden ceiling of St. Agnes Outside the Walls

… and beautiful marble arches and column capitals.

Columns and arches in the nave
Columns and arches in the nave

The apse mosaics date from the 7th century, and are lovely.  The saint stands with a golden halo in the center of a gold background.  She is flanked on one side by Pope Honorius, holding a model of the church.  On her other side is another pope, probably Symmacus, the builder of a previous church on this site.

Apse mosaic
Apse mosaic

This church has several interesting elements.  For one, it was built with a separate upper gallery for women.  Second, the figure of the saint on the altar is very unusual, having been made from a marble body of an ancient goddess, with a new bronze head and hands.

Statue of St. Agnes
Statue of St. Agnes

After your visit, exit out to the gardens.  Stay tuned…

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