Visiting smaller, lesser known late antique churches on a Saturday afternoon is not the brightest idea for the simple reason that… people tend to get married on Saturday.
Since I’ve been in Rome for my Erasmus Semester for some time know, I decided to visit one of the earliest Christian monuments in Rome, depicting some of the earliest (if not the earliest) preserved mosaics with Christian themes – thus a monument of late antique art and architecture of immense value – the mausoleum of Costanza (or Constantina), the daughter of Constantine, now the church Santa Costanza.
The church might be far away from the city center, however, it is very easily accessible with the metro. You have to get take line B to Sant’Agnese/Annibagliano (it takes ca. 10 min from Termini).
After you go above ground and although it’s on a slight hill, you will see neither the church nor any of the complex because of the trees (unless you go in winter, I suppose). So take the street with most trees which is also on a slight slope upwards (Via di Sant’Agnese) and if you look to the right, at some point you will notice the ruins of the Constantinian church of Sant’Agnese (4th c.).
Short after that you’ll see a path to the right, leading to the mausoleum (or Santa Costanza).
Directly on the left after the gates, however, you will see the later and still standing church of Sant’Agnese. So this is where I went in first. Briefly afterwards I went up the road to see the earlier and more famous mausoleum (Sta Costanza) and for my surprise there were way too many people there dressed formally. Something was obviously going on and as I found out minutes later someone was getting married. As I was out of place there, I decided to go back and visit the catacombs of Sant’Agnese.
The Catacombs of Sant’Agnese
The entrance to the catacombs is from the bookshop to the left directly outside the church. You can go in only with a guide (there’s a tour ca. every 30 min). The last tour is at 16:30. The opening hours are from 9:00 to 12:00 (last tour 11:30) and from 15:00 to 17:00 in the afternoon. The entrance fee is 8 € and unfortunately there’s no reduced fee (or free entrance) for archeology of art history students. Pictures inside are not allowed, to get some idea check the gallery on the official website.
The Saint Agnes catacombs are later than other Roman catacombs (3rd – 5th c.) and I suppose far less visited probably because of the lack of frescoes. Still the visit is definitely worth it. It is probably much more relaxed (when I was there, there was just one other visitor), it wasn’t cold at all (still take a jacked, it’s very humid) and the during the half-hour tour you get basic information about Roman catacombs in general as well as about this one in particular. We visited only the upper level (thus the more ancient one as catacombs were dug from the surface downwards when they run out of space).
The catacomb consists of about 2000 loculi (simple graves) some of which still intact. In two of the opened ones we could see the bones of supposedly a man and a woman. There are are enough inscriptions which the guide kindly explained to us. It was fascinating to see how the fossori (the people who took care and managed the catacombs, as well as dug out the loculi) reused marble slabs from graves that were no longer visited and sold them to other people. In one example, they just took a slab and inscribed it on the reversed side, in another they “deleted” the previous inscription and inscribed a new one. On some of the marble slabs you’ll also see common symbols, mostly the Chi Rho or images of a dove. In a cubiculim (a larger actual room) there was also a fragment of a marble slab from the grave of a child with the image of the good shepherd next to a Chi Rho. There are also slabs with images related to the deceased’s profession.
We finished our tour by exiting the catacomb directly under the altar of the church, where, in a silver reliquary from the 17th c., the body of Saint Agnes (except her head) is being venerated together with the body of Saint Emerentiana. According to legend both early Christian martyrs grew up together.
Sant’Agnese fuori le mura (7th. c.)
The church is a relatively small three nave basilica with a matroneum. A lot has been renovated and changed since the 7th c., however, what is of interest for “my” time period is the apse. The apse mosaic still contains the original (although I would suppose somewhat restored) mosaic, depicting Saint Agnes while receiving a golden bejeweled diadem (or a wreath) for her martyrdom from the hand of God emerging from the heavenly segment above. She stands in the center of the mosaic, flanked by pope Honorius, presenting a model of the church, and pope Symmachus (more detailed description here).
Under the mosaic, divided in three fields, is an inscription with golden letters on a blue background, stating:
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 dawn to enter 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 and end to nights or lights, from here has repulsed Chaos from the tombs of the martyrs. What each sees with a single upward glance, this beautiful votive offering, the prelate Honorius gave. By clothes and deeds he is marked, the edge of his [garment] shines, bearing the aspect of bright hearts”) (Source: romanchurches.wikia.com).
The building has been restored and renewed many times over the centuries, e.g. in the 16th c. a broad staircase of 45 marble steps was constructed to connect the monastery to the narthex of the church (for more on this check romanchurches.wikia.com). This staircase is especially worth seeing if you are interested in epigraphy. On its walls are presented many marble slab fragments with funerary inscriptions in Latin and Greek found during excavations (among which the famous one by Pope Damasus) and a very well preserved fragment of, I would suppose, a fluted sarcophagus (I’m not exactly sure if this is the correct English term, the German one is Riefelsarkophag) with a representation of a beardless Christ (?).
To summarize, if you have a free afternoon in Rome and love for late antique of early medieval history and art, Sant’Agnese fuori le mura is a perfect place to spend some relaxing time away from tourists and the hustle and bustle of the big city.