What Sits Beneath S. Agnese in Agone (and Piazza Navona)

Piazza Navona is surely one of the most popular piazzas in all of Rome with its fountains, Egyptian obelisk, churches and general architectural and atmospheric appeal. What many may or may not realize is the site of the present day piazza is the former site of the Stadium of the Emperor Domitian -- also known as the Circus Agonalis. In fact, an overhead view of the site helps to show forth its ancient origins even today:

The stadium was commissioned around the year 80 A.D. and one can still visit the underground museum which shows some of the ancient foundations of the stadium.

The most prominent bit of architecture in Piazza Navona is arguably the church of St. Agnes -- or S. Agnese in Agone as it is known in Italian. 

Visitors who walk into the church may be surprised by the small size of the interior by comparison with its quite large facade. But its small size gives it a certain charm and one will certainly not be disappointed by the art found within, particularly within the great dome of the church:

However, my purpose today is not to speak about the facade of S. Agnese, nor its beautiful interior; nor is it to speak about Piazza Navona and the Stadium of Domitian -- however these are both related to my purpose, which is to speak about what sits beneath present day S. Agnese. 

Unbeknownst to many, a crypt lies beneath S. Agnese which is the only surviving remnant of the primitive church that was built to commemorate the martyrdom of the thirteen year old Agnes on the very spot that her martyrdom was thought to have taken place in the year 305.  The crypt is accessed by way of a stairway that is located to the right of the altar of the Chapel of St. Agnes and was created out of the remains of three ruined halls of the original Domitian stadium.  

Regrettably, moisture problems are longstanding and have been known since the time of Borromini in the latter 17th century and the original frescoes that depicted various scenes from the life and martyrdom of St. Agnes are all but destroyed. Current day restoration efforts and fundraising are taking place -- and they are asking for public assistance please note. (Those who wish to aid in the restoration efforts related to the crypt may do so either by bank transfer or by means of Paypal. To see how you may assist, please visit their official donations page.)

While the crypt is presently not open to the public given its current state, readers can still get a sense of what at least remains of this crypt church through digital media:

The main crypt chamber

The altar marking the exact spot of St. Agnes' martyrdom

Fresco of Christ with the Archangels Gabriel and Michael

Ceiling decoration in the chapel with the altar of St. Agnes

Another popular Roman saint decorates the walls of the crypt: St. Cecilia

The particular altar shown here is from 1661

The remnants of a fresco of the Madonna and Child

* * *

Since we are on the subject of St. Agnes, let us consider what the Roman Martyrology has to say of the popular Roman saint:

"At Rome, the passion of St. Agnes, Virgin, who under Symphonius, the prefect of the City, was cast into flames. At her prayer they were extinguished and she was slain with the sword." 

The Roman Christian poet, Prudentius, also wrote of her as follows in his fourth century hymn:


The native home of Romulus now enshrines
The tomb of Agnes, virgin and martyr blest.
Reposing there in sight of its lofty towers,
The maiden watches over the sons of Rome,
And pilgrims, too, enjoy here protecting care,
Who pray to her with pure and believing hearts.
With splendid twofold diadem she is crowned:
Virginity unmarred by the stain of sin
And glory won by freely embracing death.

That maiden, they relate, who was not yet ripe
For marriage vows and still but a child in years,
Her soul aflame with rapturous love of Christ,
Withstood the impious edict to sacrifice
To idols and abandon her holy Faith.

Assailed at first by every art and wile,
Now by the coaxing words of a fawning judge,
Now by the butcher's sinister threats of doom,
Dauntless she stood, nor shrank from her stern resolve,
Willing to give her body to torments sore,
Nor quailing from the threat of a cruel death.

Then spoke the angry tyrant: 'If she can face
The thought of grinding torture and woeful pangs,
And sets at naught her life as of little worth,
Her consecrated chastity she holds dear.
Into a common den of impurity
I am resolved to cast her unless she bows
Before Minerva's altar and begs her grace,
That virgin she, a virgin, has dared despise.
There all the youths in wanton delight will rush,
To seek this newest slave of their lustful sport.

Then Agnes answered: 'Never will Christ forget
His own nor let our precious virginity
Be snatched from us. He will not abandon us.
He ever shields the chaste and will not permit
The gift of holy purity to be soiled.
My blood may dye your sword, if it is your will,
But never will my body be stained with lust.

So spoke the maid; the prefect then gave command
That she should stand exposed in the public square.
As there she stood, the pitying throngs fell back
And turned their eyes away in respectful awe,
None daring to regard her with brazen look.

It chanced that one was forward enough to fix
His gaze upon the maiden and did not fear
To look with lustful eye on her sacred form,
But lo, a flame as swift as a lightning flash
Quick struck his wanton eyes with its trembling dart.
The youth fell down and, blinded by glaring light,
Lay panting in the dust of the crowded street.
His fellows lifted him from the ground, half-dead,
Bewailing him with clamorous words and tears.

The virgin went forth singing a hymn of praise
In thanks to God the Father and Christ, His Son,
That when exposed to peril of vilest stain,
Her chastity had triumphed, and she had found
The den of squalid infamy clean and pure.
Some tell that Agnes, asked to implore of Christ
That He restore the sight of the guilty wretch,
Poured forth a fervent prayer, and the prostrate youth
Regained the breath of life and his vision whole.

In her ascent to heaven the saint had passed
But the first step; a second was yet to come.
The bloody tryant burned with revengeful ire.
'I am outdone,' he groaned. 'Go, unsheathe your sword,
You soldier there, and carry into effect
The laws our prince and sovereign lord decreed.

When Agnes saw the furious headsman stand
With weapon drawn, in transports of joy she cried:
Tar happier am I that a swordsman comes,
A wild uncouth barbarian, fierce and grim,
Than that a languid suitor pays court to me,
A lovesick creature, scented with rare perfumes,
Who would destroy my soul with my chastity.
This butcher is the lover who pleases me:
His bold advances I shall go forth to meet
And will not try to hinder his ardent suit.
I gladly bare my breast to his cruel steel
And deep into my heart I will draw his blade.
Thus as the bride of Christ I shall mount above
The darkness of the world to the realms of light.

Eternal King, unfasten the gates of heaven
That till of late were closed to the sons of earth,
And call Thy virgin spouse to Thyself, O Christ,
A victim to the Father now sacrificed.

As Agnes spoke these words, she inclined her head
In humble prayer to Christ, that her gentle neck
Might readier be to suffer the threatened wound.
Thus was her ardent longing fulfilled at last,
For with one blow the soldier struck off her head
And speedy death prevented all sense of pain.

Then putting off the garment of flesh, her soul
Flies forth and speeds untrammelled into the skies,
Her shining path surrounded by angel choirs.
In wonder she looks down on the world below;
On high she views the darkness beneath her feet,
And at the circling wheel of the sun she laughs
As round its orb the heavenly spheres revolve.
She sees the raging whirlwind of human life
And all the vanities of the fickle world:
Despots and kings, imperial power and rank,
The pageantry of honor and foolish pride,
The thirst for gold and silver, which all men seek
And gain by every species of wickedness,
The stately palaces with their gilded walls,
The vain display of richly embroidered robes,
The hatreds, fears, desires and impending woes,
The long enduring griefs and the fleeting joys,
Black envy with its smoking firebrands that blight
The hopes of men and tarnish all human fame,
And last, but worse than every other ill,
The sordid clouds and darkness of pagan rites.

All these things Agnes tramples beneath her feet,
And with her heel she crushes the dragon's head,
That monster vile who poisons all things of time
And plunges them into the infernal pit.
But vanquished now and under the virgin's foot
He lies crestfallen, prone in the dust of earth,
His fiery head not daring to lift again.
Meanwhile the virgin martyr's unsullied brow
God circles with a glorious twofold crown:
One glowing with the rays of eternal light,
A sixty-fold reward, and the other fruit,
Increased a hundred-fold, of celestial grace.

O happy virgin, glory but lately dawned,
O noble dweller in the celestial courts,
Adorned with thy resplendent twin diadem,
Deign now to turn thy face on our miseries.
To thee alone the Father of all has given
Power to make pure the dwelling of sin itself.
I, too, shall be made clean by thy radiant glance
If thou wilt fill my heart with its gracious light.
All is pure where thou deignest in love to dwell,
Or where thine own immaculate foot may tread.

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