By Melissa Butz
The Church of Sant’Agnese is visited daily by thousands of tourists strolling around Rome’s Piazza Navona.
But it has a secret inside: the skull of one of the youngest Catholic saints and martyrs.
It was in that spot in 303 A.D. that St. Agnes was killed, as one of the first martyrs during the persecution against Christians in Rome.
“She was accused of refusing the love of the prefect of Rome’s son,” explained Luca Mazzola, the director of St. Agnes Crypt. “For this reason, she was imprisoned and initially stripped naked. After this, her hair grew to cover her body. She was accused of witchcraft after the hair incident and was thrown into a fire.”
The fire didn’t harm Agnes either. Her hair once again protected her from the flames. It wasn’t until a sword pierced her throat that she died. Her remains were then kept at a church in Rome for centuries, until 1918.
“At that point, Pius X separates her head from the remains of the body. He gifts it to this church here, Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona, because this is where her death took place,” Mazzola added.
Her skull is still venerated there today, protected in a silver case with her statue and name written across the top.
It is visited by reams of tourists passing through the church, praying for the young girl’s Intercession.
While they pray, a guestbook lies next to the altar for each pilgrim to sign as a way each person can connect with one of the earliest Christian martyrs and leave a part of themselves in the Eternal City.