Rome, S Agnese

Era 7AD
Location Via Nomentana, 349, 00162 Roma RM, Italy

S Agnese is also outside the old city walls, a spit away from S Costanza and located over a set of catacombs. Bus is the best way to get there! In the sixth century, Pope Pelagius had built a large basilica church over the tomb of the martyr, Agnes, . Pope Honorius I (625-38) restored this church and was responsible for its lavish decoration and apse mosaic.

Against a background of different shades of gold, Agnes, in magnificent imperial-style robes and stunning jewellery, stands in the centre of the apse on a stylised ground line. Tongues of fire and a sword at her feet indicate her martyrdom. She is flanked to her right by Pope Honorius himself, offering her a model of the church and, to her left, by an unnamed saint carrying a book, possibly Pope Gregory the Great, whom Honorius idolised. The Hand of God appears out of red clouds, surrounded by a circle of stars and holding a martyr’s wreath. What is striking is the absence of Christ from the scene.

Below the image is an inscription commemorating Honorius’s work. We know that his family was aristocratic and, presumably, that he had considerable personal resources. The mosaic and its surrounds make it clear that he was prepared to invest much of these in the church: he used a lot of spolia, bits that he could take from old buildings, like the paired marble columns and capitals across the aisle, and the revetment of the apse includes Proconnesian marble and purple imperial porphyry, two of the most prestigious of marbles available. The remodelling of S Agnese may well have been a part of a deliberate programme on the pope’s part of renovating the memorial sites of martyrs. Certainly the scale and plan of the church would have accommodated crowds of pilgrims and allow them to circulate within the building and through the crypt.

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