Sant' Agnese fuori le Mura is a 7th century conventual and parochial church, which has the dignity of a minor basilica. It is located at Via Nomentana 349 in the Trieste district, and the centre of a very important palaeo-Christian funerary complex. See also Santa Costanza, and Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura -Basilica Constantiniana. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
The dedication is to St Agnes, an early 4th century martyr.
- 1 History
- 2 Exterior
- 3 Interior
- 4 Catacombs
- 5 Access
- 6 Liturgy
- 7 References
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 External links
St Agnes was a late martyr and it is unlikely that she was buried on her own on this site in about 304 (her date of martyrdom), 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 period
According to the Liber Pontificalis, the first "basilica" (actually a funerary complex) 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 but was transcribed from a manuscript by Giovanni Battista De Rossi who ascribed it to Pope St Damasus.
It is alternatively 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 used to be regarded as a vast basilical church, but is now considered to have been an arcaded funerary enclosure rather like the Quadriporticus at the modern cemetery of the Campo Verano. Whether or not the central area of this was roofed is uncertain -the similar but smaller edifice at San Sebastiano fuori le Mura is known to have been.
Attached to the "basilica" about thirty years later (c. 370) was the circular mausoleum of Constantina, which 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 an original church built perhaps by Pope Damasus, or later on in the 5th century. Unfortunately, at present this cannot be conclusively 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.
Early Middle ages
Pope Symmachus is recorded as having restored "the basilica" at the start of the 6th century. This is thought to have been the putative first church, not the funerary enclosure which was probably already abandoned.
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.
High Middle ages
The monastery would originally have been staffed by monks of some sort, but was in charge of a college of secular priests by the 12th century. In 1112, Pope Paschal II replaced these with a community of Benedictine nuns. The convent is listed in the Anonoymous Catalogue of Turin of the 14th century as having forty nuns, which was a good number. 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 Augustinian Congregation of St Ambrose, also known as Ambrosians. However, they proved unsatisfactory and were replaced by Pope Innocent VIII in 1489 with Canons Regular of the Lateran, who have been in charge ever since.
The basilica was pillaged in the Sack of Rome in 1527, and subsequently restored by Cardinal Varallo.
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.
Towards the end of the 16th century the catacombs were penetrated by Antonio Bosio, who also visited the nearby Coemeterium Maius and thought that the two were one large set of catacombs. Unfortunately the result of his discovery was that the restricted section of the catacombs opened to visitors here (now called Regio II) was looted of its artefacts and human remains, and most of its frescoes destroyed.
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. Her shrine was originally at the Coemeterium Maius.
Between the 17th and the 19th centuries, six side chapels were added to the fabric of the basilica. 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.
In this century and well into the 19th, the Coemeterium Maius was regarded as being part of the catacombs here. You can find descriptions of it in books of the period under the title of Sant'Agnese, and this has caused confusion to the present day. Chandlery fell into this error in his Pilgrim Walks in Rome of 1903, and he really should have known better by then.
This brick floor was, in turn, 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 in the 20th century that they be removed). Virtually all of the previous fresco decorations had 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 was only finally realized in the late 19th century, beginning with an exploration in 1865 by Giovanni Battista Rossi. The present Regio III was investigated by Mariano Armellini, who found it undisturbed by plunderers.
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 grow, 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 so-called Regio I of the catacombs, the oldest zone, was investigated in the first decade of the 20th century and the Regio IV in the 1970's.
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 here for a casual visitor 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 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 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 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 Corinthian columns in the nave arcades number fourteen, are of precious marble; the four by the choir in the rare red 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 also has a gallery over the entrance narthex, which was either built for the use of women as in the early Eastern tradition (a matroneum), 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 over the aisles, 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 ribbed Corinthian columns in grey marble.
Above the galleries are round-headed windows, one over each arcade arch.
The frescoes above the nave arcades and on the triumphal arch are 19th century. The former were supervised by Andrea Busiri Vici, and possibly cover remains of the original medieval fresco cycles. They consist of tondo portraits of popes, helpfully labelled, and the actual artists are recorded as Tojetti, Botti and Sereni. In between the upper nave wall windows are figures of saints.
The triumphal arch depicts martyrdom of St Agnes, and is by Pietro Gagliardi.
The wooden coffered ceilingof the nave, from1606, is richly carved and has a figure of St Agnes in the centre flanked by two of SS Cecilia and Constantia. The paintwork and gilding is, however, from the 19th century.
The lower part of the apse is panelled in Classical style, using marble and porphyry.
The Byzantine-style mosaic in the conch of the apse dates from about 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.
There is a long mosaic epigraph below the conch mosaic, which reads:
Aurea concisis surgit, pictura metallis, et complexa simul clauditur ipsa dies. Fontibus e niveis credas aurora subire correptas nubes roribus arva rigans. Vel qualem inter sidera, lucem proferet Irim, purpureusque pavo ipse colore nitens. Qui potuit noctis vel lucis reddere finem, martyrum e bustis hinc reppulit ille Chaos. Sursum versa nutu quod cunctis cernitur uno, praesul Honorius haec vota dicata dedit: Vestibus et factis signantur illius ora, excitat aspectu lucida corda gerens.
("Golden pictures rise out of the beaten metals, and day[light] itself is both confined and embraces. From snowy springs, you may believe that dawn enters into gathered clouds to water the fields with dew. And the rainbow among the stars produces such a light, and the purple peacock shines with this colour. He who can give an end to nights or lights, from here has repulsed Chaos from the tombs of the martyrs. What each sees with a single upward glance, [which is] this beautiful votive offering, the prelate Honorius gave. By clothes and deeds he is signed, the edge of his [garment] shines, bearing the aspect of bright hearts")
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.
The episcopal throne behind the high altar is ancient, possibly 7th century, as is the marble neo-Attic paschal candlestick which is the oldest thing in the church, dating from the 2nd century.
There are six side-chapels, three on each side leading off the aisles. They are described in anti-clockwise order, beginning to the right of the entrance.
The crypt-shrine containing St Agnes's tomb is at the end of the right hand aisle, but her relics are in a silver reliquary 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.
The shrine is pointed out at the end of the tour of the catacombs (see below).
Chapel of St Augustine
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Augustine, and is 17th century although heavily restored. The altarpiece is a rather pallid and uninteresting 19th century portrait of the saint.
Here are two good 19th century memorials. The one to Anna Cocco-Mangani 1869 has an attractive and engaging little tondo portrait of a motherly-looking lady, of the sort allegedly dominant in the Italian consciousness and so helping to preserve their civilization. The other is to Rosa Alessandrini 1867, listed as having been sculpted by one T. Dell'Aquila. It is in a neo-Classical style, and the portrait bust is good. The deceased is depicted having a rather basic and unattractive hairstyle, and this is because everything English was fashionable in the middle of the 19th century.
Chapel of the Holy Deacons
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to the Holy Deacon Martyrs SS Stephen and Lawrence. The altarpiece is a fine marble sculpture of the two saints, thought to be by Andrea Bregno but probably of his school. This has two full-length portraits, standing within a little arcade supporting an entablature with a dedicatory inscription.
Here is a side wall memorial to Pietro Giacomo Cima, 1609. He was the chamberlain to Pope Leo IX, and unusually the tondo portrait is not of the deceased but of the pope whom he served. This was by Antonio Scalvati (1557-1622) from Bologna, but tragically has been badly damaged by damp.
Chapel of St Emerentiana
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to St Emerentiana, and the decoration is by Eugenio Cisterna 1892. The geometric mullions or transennae in the pair of windows flanking the altar look later. Unfortunately there has been some damage from damp here, although the main frescoes have not been much affected.
The altarpiece shows the saint, and is in a polished neo-Classical style. The side wall frescoes depict The Funeral of St Agnes, and The Martyrdom of St Emerentiana. The latter graphically shows her being stoned to death at her foster-sister's tomb.
The altar itself has a pair of twisted columns at its corners which look old. Each is formed of two braided elements, like a pair of mating worms.
Chapel of the Daughters of Mary
The third chapel on the left belongs to the Pio Unione delle Figlie di Maria. The altarpiece is a 19th century picture showing St Agnes, with her lamb, presenting members of the Pious Union to Our Lady. The saint is shown as a pretty girl in her early teens, and understandably it is this image that has got onto prayer cards rather than that on the mosaic or the statue in the apse.
Chapel of Our Lady of Pompeii
The central chapel on the left is described as being dedicated to Our Lady of Pompeii, but the altarpiece is not a copy of the famous icon called by that name. Rather, it is the only early fresco surviving in the church, of the 15th century, and showing the Madonna suckling the Child. On the side walls are frescoes by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari.
Chapel of the Sacred Heart
The first chapel on the left is dedicated to the Sacred Heart. It belongs to the Confraternity of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and is of devotional interest only.
The entrance to the catacombs is in a room off the near end of the left hand aisle, and hopefully you will find someone here who will sell you a ticket and arrange for your tour. This may have to be in Italian only. Sant'Agnese is the quietest of the publicly accessible Roman catacombs, and so in the middle of winter you might find yourself on your own at first. However the Vatican, who are in charge of all the catacombs, insist on all visitors accompanying a tour guide for safety and security reasons.
See a map of the layout here.
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. The excavation required for this has destroyed the point at which the four main zones of the catacombs used to meet. The oldest zone, Regio I, is just to the north of the basilica. Regio II is to the north-east, and joins onto a network of underground sand quarries. Regio III is to the east and south-east, running under the road. Regio IV trails away to the south-west.
The geology here is of a rather friable tufa, grading into consolidated sand, and is not a very good material for excavation. Evidence of collapse and shoring can be seen.
Regio I, the oldest zone, is a small and neat grid of tunnels under the Via di Sant'Agnese. It is the first area 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 except for one of the latter reading Eutychiae aebutiae viduae. The term "widow" seems here to refer to the primitive Christian rank, and if so the epitaph is early 3rd century. Fortunately the zone was only discovered in the early 20th century, and so remains relatively intact.
The galleries here are short and small, without any large cubicula. Named locations are the Cubiculum of Fortunata and Domitian and the Hypogeum of Abilia Domna, after epitaphs located here. The surmise is that the complex began as a simple private catacomb, only to become public a century later.
Regio II and III
The second and third zones can be counted together. The only distinction between them is that the second zone was a limited area accessible to visitors from the 17th century, while the third zone was opened up in the late 19th century by Armellini. There are 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 is an entrance to the latter from the apse area of the basilica. This part of the catacombs is perhaps about the year 300, or may be contemporary with the imperial complex later in the century.
The second zone has been trashed. All the epigraphs were plundered, and the loculi or grave-cuts smashed open to extract the burials. Because of the friable nature of the tufa into which they were carved, this vandalism has caused several collapses. However the third zone have many loculi which have never been disturbed, and these retain their original fill or blocking slabs.
Many of the small objects that Armellini dug out of the silt that filled the passages are now in the Vatican Museums. Apart from earthenware lamps, most of these seem to have been pressed into the cement fill of loculi. There are coins, little glass bottles and shells as well as a famous gold-glass base of a bowl showing SS Peter and Paul (the apostles are depicted by cutting gold foil and sandwiching the result between two layers of glass). There are no notable frescoes or representations apart from the epigraphs, except one showing a fossor or passage-excavator with his pickaxe.
Armellini also traced links between the northern tunnels and ancient underground sand quarries (arenarii) which exist further up the Via Nomentana. Apparently these also link up to the Coemeterium Maius, making one underground network. However, these quarries were never used for burials.
The last zone starts from an extant entrance just by Santa Costanza, and occupies the area in the direction of the basilica, under the monastery and also under the monastery 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.
The full extent of the catacombs is not yet known. Passages of this fourth zone were excavated as late as the 1970's.
According to the Diocese, the opening hours of the basilica are:
07:30 to 12:00 and 16:00 to 19:30. (June 2018).
Beware of the extended lunch break.
Because there is nothing else worth seeing in the neighbourhood apart from the basilica and the complex associated with it, large tour groups and non-religious tourists tend not to visit and hence leave the basilica to the serious art students and pilgrims.
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.
According to the DIocese in June 2018, the catacomb opening times are:
9:00 to 12:00 (not Sundays or Solemnities), 16:00 to 18:00 (the afternoon opening times have been varying).
The catacombs are closed in November.
The cost is eight euros per person. Visitors are taken through in groups by a tour guide.
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.
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.
Mass is celebrated (June 2018):
Weekdays 8:00, 19:00
Sundays 8:00, 10:00, 11:15, 12:30 (not summer), 19:00.
There is Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on First Fridays from 18:00 to 19:00.
Rosary is at 18:30 daily.
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.
- 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