Created before Christian icons influenced Roman artistry and before pagan symbols became associated with the Catholic Church, these frescoes styled in ornamental motifs are considered the most beautiful, graceful and free in their design and execution of any in Rome.
They came from a place with as rich a history, the Basilica of St. Agnese fuori le Mura. It began with the martyrdom of the saint and the interest given by Constantinešs family, and the church has remained in appearance and atmosphere an ancient place of Christian worship.
The story of the 13-year-old virgin martyr she was ordered stripped of her clothes by Emperor Diocletian because she refused a man at his court, but her hair grew to protect her modesty garnered a cult following after her death.
Agnese, or Agnes, was a 12- or 13-year-old virgin martyr, according to legend, who was stripped naked in front of the court of the Emperor Diocletian, who was angered by the girl's rejection of a young man at his court. Though naked, Agnese's hair grew miraculously fast in order to protect her modesty.
Writings of St. Ambrose give an account of her execution by sword.
But as is true with many of the saints and prophets of early Christendom, consistent tales of their lives and deaths are hard to find.
Pope Damasus wrote that, immediately after the promulgation of the Roman emperor's edict against Christians, Agnes openly declared herself a Christian, and suffered martyrdom by fire.
In this account, Agnese was concerned only with veiling, by means of her flowing hair, her naked, "chaste body which had been exposed to the gaze of the heathen multitude." .
The Bishop of Turin (A.D. 450-470), evidently told a version which described Agnese's bondage at a brothel, where a lusty young man was rendered "as if he were dead" when he gazed at her with desire. The bishop told that the virgin was partially decapitated after remaining untouched by the flames of her pyre.
No single, definitive record exists to explain why Agnese won the martyr's crown. It was customary to assign her death to the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 304), but others argue, based on an inscription by Damasus, that her martyrdom occurred during one of the earlier third century persecutions.
As mentioned, St. Ambrose gave her age as 12, St. Augustine as 13.
St. Agnese in Agone in the Piazza Navona, is believed to be the place of her martyrdom around the year 304 A.D.. .She was buried at the site of St. Agnese fuori le Mura.
The tomb bearing a relief of a young woman is found on a marble slab that dates from the fourth century and was originally a part of the altar of the Basilica of St. Agnese.
The sculpture depicts a young girl, nearly decapitated, lying on her side.
The original slab covering her remains, with the inscriptions Agne sanctissima, is probably the same one now preserved in a Museum at Naples.
During the reign of Constantine, through the efforts of his daughter Constantina, the basilica of St. Agnese was erected over the grave of the young saint, which was later entirely remodeled by Pope Honorius (A.D. 625-638), and has since remained unaltered, according to Vatican records.
The church that stands today was built by Honorius I (625-38 A.D.) on the same location where the original was founded by Constantia. The basilica was built halfway into the catacombs, where St. Agnese is buried.
The basilica built by Honorius I resembles many of the Byzantine churches of the time, with galleries which provide access from the ground level. This is also found in early Roman basilicas, also erected over the tomb of saints.
Inside the church, the seventh century mosaic portrays St. Agnese against a golden field, the sword of martyrdom at her feet. She is slim, young and appearing in her Byzantine court dress, embroidered with the phoenix. On each side, stand Pope Symmachus, who restored Constantiašs first church, and Honorius I.
Below the mosaic, the apse is lined with contemporary marble decoration. Within it, stands an ancient episcopal throne. The altar canopy is 17th century, but the supporting porphyry columns date from the seventh century. St. Agnesešs statue, which rests on the alter, is done from antique work in alabaster. Beneath the statue, are the remains of St. Agnese and her foster-sister or freedwoman, St. Emerentiana.
Every January 21, two lambs decorated in ribbons and flowers are blessed at the alter, then taken to the Pope for further blessing, before being handed over to the Benedictine nunšs of St. Cecilia in Trastevere.
Tradition has kept the Basilica of St. Agnese a place of worship, a place of beauty and a place to remember a young martyr, who as the story goes appeared eight days after her death holding a white lamb.