Anyone familiar with Piazza Navona, one of historic Rome’s central squares, is familiar with Sant’Agnese in Agone, the church that dominates the Western side of the square in front of infamous Bernini’s “Four Rivers” fountain.
I entered the church not knowing the story of St. Agnes, so the first thing that struck me was the color palette.
Pink and white marble dominate the walls, keeping everything light. No dark Carvaggio-esque paintings here! White marble wall engravings are the only artwork, helping to reflect the light. Only when you look up, up, up do you find any paintings, and these still maintain the brightness of the lower half of the church, primarily utilizing soft blues and pinks.
Windows around the base of the dome let in the majority of the light, and the dome itself made me do a double take! The painting inside the dome works as an optical illusion, making your eyes think it goes higher up than it does, extending towards heaven. The very very top of the dome ends in a window, as well, giving more light to this bright, comforting church.
Basically, it’s a young girl’s church.
And it actually is – St. Anges was around, as far as we can tell, 12 or 13 years old when she was martyred right on this very spot somewhere around 303-304AD. How do they know that, you ask? Simple: scientists have analyzed HER SKULL, which just happens to be IN THE NEXT ROOM.
Can’t see it? Let me help you zoom in…
Why its smaller than the head of a Cabbage Patch Kid, I have no idea. All I know is that I was completely crept out. Before traveling to Italy on this first trip, I had no idea that skulls, bones and hair of saints were actually *displayed* in churches. I repeat: it crept me out!
But on to the story, which I love, as I’ve always loved stories of strong women and strong young women, especially as a child.
It all started, of course, with a boy. The son of a Prefect of Rome, to be exact, who became infatuated with young Agnes. Living up to her name (in Greek Agnes meas “pure, chaste”), Agnes rejected his advances proclaiming her chastity represented her devotion to God. The spoiled son didn’t take this very well. To punish Agnes for rejecting him, he had her put on “display”, naked, in the Circus Agonale (present day Piazza Navona), where the prostitues paraded to sell their services.
This is when her miracles began. To cover her nakedness and save her modesty, her hair grew in long locks, protecting her from public eyes. This didn’t keep a man from wanting to buy her, though, and when he died before he had the chance Agnes was accused of being a witch. To prove her innocence – you already know how well that worked out for her – she said that an angel in white was protecting her. To convince everyone of this she brought the man back to life with a prayer to said angel. Probably not the best way to prove you’re not a witch…
…the Romans didn’t think so, either. They threw her onto a fire to burn her alive, but the flames miraculously went out, saving her. They finally decided to take a more direct approach and pierced her neck with a sword as they would a lamb being slaughtered. This is why St. Agnes always appears in artwork with a lamb in her arms or at her feet.
St. Agnes “in Agone” is not “in agony” – “in Agone” was the name of Piazza Navona at the time (“Piazza in Agone”). ”in Agone” meant “in sight of the competitions”, and Piazza Navona was built in the style of the ancient Greeks, with one flat end, to be used for footraces. In 342AD Constantina, daughter of the Emperor Constantine, built a basilica in honor of St. Agnes on Via Nomentana above in the crypt in which the young girl was buried called “Sant’Agnes Fuori Le Mure” (St. Agnes Outside the Walls). So when this church was built in 1652, intended as a private chapel connected to the adjacent palace of the family of Pope Innocent X (yeah, I know…), it was given the name “Sant’Agnes in Agone” to be distinguished by its location. The fact that it was meant to be a private chapel does explain why its so much smaller than other churches in Rome, but every bit as grand.
It’s one of my favorites, particularly for the story. There are, of course, points of contention to exactly what happened to Agnes and who she was, but the story I’ve related is the one told by the church, and I like it