Helena Augusta

Basilica Santa Agnese   Rome


Cemetery of St. Agnes. The body of St. Agnes, who suffered martyrdom probably under Valerian (253-60), was buried by her parents "in praediolo suo", i.e. on a small property they owned along the Nomentan Way. There was already in this place a private cemetery, which grew rapidly in size after the interment of the youthful martyr. The excavations carried on since 1901, at the expense of Cardinal Kopp, have revealed a great many fourth-to-sixth-century graves (formae) beneath the sanctuary of the basilica. The cemetery (three stories deep) is divided by archaeologists into three regions, the aforesaid primitive nucleus (third century), a neighbouring third-century area, and two fourth-century groups of corridors that connect the basilica of St. Agnes with the ancient round basilica of St. Constantia. It is not certain that the actual basilica of St. Agnes, built on a level with a second story of the catacomb, is identical with that built by Constantine; there is reason to suspect a reconstruction of the edifice towards the end of the fifth century. St. Damasus composed for the tomb of Agnes one of his finest epitaphs. Symmachus (498-514), and Honorius I (625-38), restored the basilica, if the former did not reconstruct it; to the latter we owe the fresco of St. Agnes between these two popes. In the sixteenth century, and also in the nineteenth (Pius IX, 1855), it was again restored; in 1901 (25 Nov.) new excavations laid bare the heavy silver sarcophagus in which St. Pius V had deposited the bodies of St. Agnes and St. Emerentiana. In the neighbouring Coemeteium majus (accessible from the cemetery of St. Agnes through an arenaria, or sand-pit) is the famous crypt or chapel of St. Emerentiana, opened up in 1875, at the expense of Monsignore Crostarosa, and identified by De Rossi with the Coemeterium Ostrianum, the site of very archaic Roman memories of St. Peter, a position now strongly disputed by his disciple Marucchi (see below, Cemetery of Priscilla). In the vicinity of the crypt of St. Emérentiana is an important arcosolium-fresco representing the Blessed Virgin as an Orante, with the Infant Jesus before her. It belongs to the first half of the fourth century, and is said by Marucchi (II, 343) to be almost the latest catacomb fresco of Our Lady, a kind of hyphen between the primitive frescoes and the early Byzantine Madonnas; it seems at the same time a very early evidence of the adorational use of paintings in public worship (Le Bourgeios, Sainte Emerentienne, vierge et martyre, Paris, 1895).

chronology of Santa Agnese fuori le Mura

III century

Several brickstamps on the roof of the basilica.


Foundation of a basilica with a baptistry by Constantine the Great.


Acrostic of Constantina, in the primative basilica, preserved in the manuscripts of Prudentius, Peristephanon


Sepulchral inscription in the catacomb gallery behind the high altar.

Richard Krautheimer, Corpus basilicarum Christianarum Romae: Le basiliche cristiane antichi di Roma (sec. IV-IX) (Cittá del Vaticano: Pontificio istituto di archeologia cristiana, 1937-).

At the same time he built the basilica of the holy martyr Agnes1, at the request of Constantia2, his daughter, and a baptistery3 in the same place, where both his sister, Constantia, and the daughter of Augustus were baptised by Silvester, the bishop, where also he presented the following gifts:
a paten of purest gold, weighing 20 lbs.;
a golden chalice, weighing 10 lbs.;
a chandelier of purest gold with 30 dolphins, weighing 15 lbs.;
2 silver patens, weighing each 20 lbs.;
5 silver chalices, weighing each 110 lbs.;
30 silver chandeliers, weighing each 8 lbs.;
40 chandeliers of brass;
40 candelabra of brass overlaid with silver and adorned with reliefs;
a golden lamp with 12 wicks, which weighs 20 lbs., over the font, weighing 15 lbs.;

likewise a gift for revenue:
all the land about the city of Fidelinae4, yielding 160 sol.;
on the Via Salaria as far as the ruins, all the land of the holy Agnes, yieldin, 105 sol.;
the land of Mucus, yielding 80 sol.;
the property of Vicus Pisonis, yielding 350 sol.; [250 sol.;]
the land of Casulac, yielding 100 sol.
The Life of Pope Sylvester

1. The church of Sant' Agnese on the Via Nomentana, erected over the traditional tomb of the virgin martyr, was rebuilt by Honorius I in the seventh century, so that it is now uncertain if any part of the present structure belongs to the age of Constantine.
2. The name of Constantine's daughter was Constantina. Originally an acrostic inscription in the apse of the basilica commemorated the dedication of the church in her name. Constantine's sister was Constantia. Duchesne, op. cit., p. 106, n. 80.
3. The small, circular building, now known as the church of Santa Costanza, was used originally as a mausoleum but may have been intended also as a baptistery. The huge porphyry sarcophagus, at present in the Vatican Museum, stood in a niche in the wall facing the entrance and a baptismal font may have occupied the central space under the dome. The arrangement would then have been similar to that in the Lateran baptistery, and the shape of the two buildings, with their double apsed vestibules, is not unlike. At any rate there is no vestige of another baptistery in the vicinity. There is no unimpeachable account of the baptism of the princesses of Constantine's house, but it is not, of course, improbable that such a ceremony took place. Ammianus Marcllinus tells us that in the year 360 the body of Helena, one of Constantine's daughters, was sent to Rome to be buried on the Via Nomentana, outside the city, where her sister Constantina already lay. Roman History, XXI, 1; tr. Yonge, Bohn's Library, p. 244.
4. Probably Fidenze, the modern Castel Giubileo, five miles from Rome, near the Via Salaria.

contributing sperm for egg fertilization
This contribution was going to be a short piece written as a male "donation" to The Architect: Reconstructing Her Practice. I was going to feature Constantina, the daughter of Constantine (the Great) as the first architect of sacred Christian sites. I don't know if I can do this now because I may have gotten my facts messed up with regard to Constantina being instrumental in building S. Agnes (outside the Walls). I read somewhere that it was her project, and because of that I've surmised this whole scenario where it was she, and not her Emperor father, who was behind the initial Christian building within Rome.
I was set to tell the Constantina story and the St. Agnes (martyrdom) story, and I was going to play up the whole reversal (inversion) motif. I particularly liked entertaining the notion that Constantina constructed her own practice. It was all going to make a tremendous story, but right now I don't even know where I read about Constantina's connection with the St. Agnes Church.
I may still have something here, but I doubt it will be as big a flash as I originally thought.
I was even going to dedicate the text to Francesca Hughes (editor of The Architect) and all the woman (architect) authors within The Architect, and in so doing clear up the seemingly universal Immaculate Conception misunderstanding once and for all.

1999.04.01 Holy Thursday
a recollection of the day's events.1
My day began with an early morning Internet search of St. Agnes. I specifically wanted to locate a previously found Internet reference that attributed the original (early Christian) building of the St. Agnese basilica in Rome to Constantina, Constantine the Great's daughter. I found the St. Agnes-Constanti(n)a reference, however, during the search process I also accidentally found St. Helena, the mother of Constantine and the grandmother of Constantina. My "discovery" of Helena occurred while reading The Catholic Encyclopedia's online entry on Constantine, where there is a hyperlink to St. Helena. Seeing that Constantine's mother is a proclaimed saint naturally sparked my curiosity. The St. Helena hyperlink connects to The Catholic Encyclopedia's online entry on St. Helena herself, and it was there that I found out that it was not Constantina who was behind all the early Christian church building but rather Helena: Tradition links her name with the building of Christian churches in the cities of the West, where the imperial court resided, notably at Rome and Trier, and there is no reason for rejecting this tradition, for we know positively through Eusebius that Helena erected churches on the hallowed spots of Palestine. Despite her advanced age she undertook a journey to Palestine when Constantine, through his victory over Licinius, had become sole master of the Roman Empire, subsequently, therefore, to the year 324. It was in Palestine, as we learn from Eusebius, that she had resolved to bring to God, the King of kings, the homage and tribute of her devotion. She lavished on that land her bounties and good deeds, she "explored it with remarkable discernment", and "visited it with the care and solicitude of the emperor himself". Then, when she "had shown due veneration to the footsteps of the Saviour", she had two churches erected for the worship of God: one was raised in Bethlehem near the Grotto of the Nativity, the other on the Mount of the Ascension, near Jerusalem. Suddenly, and most unexpectedly, my (re)search turned from St. Agnes and Constantina towards St. Helena. Admittedly, I did not immediately comprehend that Helena was indeed that "builder" of the first Christian churches for which I searched, yet, within an hour of further research, I realized that Helena may well be the first master architect of Christianity.




Quondam © 2014.04.12