Rome’s favourite martyr
The Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone is one of the most sacred Christian churches in Rome. Erected on the site where St. Agnes was martyred, the church looks onto the beautiful Piazza Navona
, which itself used to be the site of the Roman Emperor Domitian’s Circus, where chariot racing and other spectator sports were held.
Saint Agnes was 12 or 13 years old when she was murdered by a Roman sword in 303 or 304 AD, during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, who was relentless in his persecution of Christians. As revenge for her rejecting their advances, Agnes’ wealthy suitors informed Diocletian of her Christianity. She was put on display naked under one of the arches of the Circus Agonale, where the prostitutes of the time worked. However, her nakedness was miraculously covered by the sudden rapid growth of her long hair, and men who tried to buy her body were struck blind. The power of prayer saved her once more when she was tied to the stake, extinguishing the flames; after this final miracle her throat was pierced with a sword, eventually bringing her short life to an end.
The basilica was built in Agnes’ honour in the 17th century. The similarity of her name to the Latin agnus (lamb), and the lamb’s symbolic connotations of purity and innocence, spawned a tradition whereby the nuns of the basilica raise two lambs each year which are given to the Pope. Their wool is used in the weaving of the pallium, a woolen vestment given to the archbishops.
The Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone dominates the centre of the Piazza Navona, and its impressive edifice owes its design to Borromini, with the later contribution of other artists. The interior of the church displays a spectacular variety of frescoes, sculptures and ornate decoration. There are a number of altars in the church, all dedicated to Christian martyrs, except the main altar which depicts the Holy family. The most striking altar, called Saint Agnes on the Pyre, depicts St. Agnes herself with flames leaping about her, and a shrine contains her skull in a silver reliquary.