Churches - they're everywhere in Rome; are there 300 of them? 500? 900 say some. Should one even be in the Top 40 of RST? With some coaxing from me (Bill never saw a church he willingly would go into - unless it was brutalist architecture - see his post of 8/30/09), Sant'Agnese fuori le mura ("outside the walls") comes in at #21.
One of the divine qualities of this church is where it is - amid the busy traffic of multi-laned via Nomentana, pushed up against the now dense high-rise residential area of Trieste, decidedly outside the walls of ancient, even Renaissance Rome. But there it is, placed in "a courtyard bathed in peace, greenery, and light" (to quote ourselves from Chapter 3 - "Beyond the Wall" - of Rome the Second Time).
Sant'Agnese fuori le mura is also one of those fabulous lessons in the layers of Rome: pagan, Christian, Medieval, Renaissance, contemporary. There are ruins from a 4th century AD covered cemetery built by the Emperor Constantine (the first Emperor who converted to Christianity) or by (or for) his daughter or possibly granddaughter, both named Constantia. There is the mausoleum for Constantia, now called the mausoleum of "Santa Costanza" (a nun, not Constantia, and not officially a saint), reputedly built over the bones of Sant'Agnese - got all that?. And, there is the 7th century basilica of martyred Sant'Agnese - built (over the 4th century one) alongside the mausoleum and containing extensive catacombs (which one can visit). The catacomb level was then the first floor; now it is several floors below ground level. The portico is 16th century. Add a medieval tower. The soccer fields and snack bar (when we were last there) are contemporary.
Saint Agnes is the patron saint of virgins, because she refused to give herself to anyone except God. In various versions of her story (in one she is 13, in another an adult), the pagan Romans strip her of her clothes, and her hair grows to cover her nakedness. She's also the patron saint of the wonderful Borromini church in Piazza Navona, Sant'Agnese in Agonia (Saint Agnes in Agony).
That toughest of art critics, Georgina Masson, calls Sant'Agnese fuori le mura "one of the rare Roman churches which has best preserved the appearance--and the atmosphere--of a very ancient Christian place of worship."
Dianne - This one's for you, Bruce P!