Sant’ Agnese and Santa Costanza: two gems outside Rome’s walls

The Basilica of Sant’Agnese Fuori Le Mura is a sanctuary in northeastern Rome that is worth visiting when you need to escape the bustle of the city for a while. It is also a good option for tourists who would like to see some catacombs but don’t really have time to head out to the more well-known sites along the Old Appian Way. This basilica therefore deserves to be included on my blog about hidden gems in Italy, especially as it is missed off many tourist itineraries.

Saint Agnes is described as a “virgin martyr”, and is the patron saint of chastity, young girls and rape victims. According to ancient records she died in Rome at the beginning of the fourth century, when she was only about 12 or 13 years old. After she refused offers of marriage because she wanted to stay devoted to God, her slighted suitors told authorities that she was a Christian. For this she was dragged through the city and killed. According to legends a series of miracles took place before she died, for example, some claim that when she was stripped naked in public ahead of an attempt to burn her, her hair grew to cover her body and preserve her modesty.

Located just off the ancient Via Nomentana, the basilica was built over the catacombs where Saint Agnes was originally buried. When you first walk through the gates, you come into a courtyard with a grotto shrine in front of you, and the basilica to your left.


stagneseoutThis church was built in the seventh century on orders of Pope Honorius I to replace a larger fourth century version which fell into decay (some ruins of the original can still be seen nearby). The apse mosaic, which dates back to the seventh century, shows Agnes in the centre on a gold background, flanked by Pope Honorius I and another unidentified pope.

agnesmosaic2Agnes’  tomb now lies in the crypt of the basilica, next to that of Emerentiana, her foster sister who was stoned to death after praying at Agnes’ grave and declaring herself a Christian too.

stagnestombOnce you have wandered around the basilica, you can walk up an internal set of steps (that originally led down into the church), and have a look at a wide selection of inscriptions and funerary remnants from the catacombs and other ancient sites nearby. Here are a few examples:

corridor1After this you can walk around to the mausoleum of Santa Costanza, which dates back to the fourth century. According to records it was built by Roman Emperor Constantine I (c. 272-337 AD) for his daughter Constantina. It later became known as Santa Costanza when Constantina was venerated as a saint.

santacostanzaIn here you can admire beautiful and intricate early Christian mosaics. Here is one of Jesus enthroned on the globe, handing over keys or a codex to Saint Peter:

jesusmosaicAnd here is an example of the mosaic patterns on the roof:

costanzamosaicWhen the sun is shining, the light rays coming through the windows create a special atmosphere in the mausoleum:

santacostanza1Next you can return to the basilica of Saint Agnes and perhaps take a tour underground to see the catacombs. Tours run every half hour from 9am to 1pm and 4pm to 6pm. Unfortunately I was not allowed to take photos underground, but I remember the most interesting things I saw were two skeletons dating back to early Christian Rome and the tombs of wealthy families with fascinating inscriptions and pictures.



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