The Baroque church of Sant' Agnese in Agone was commissioned by Pope Innocent X (1644-55) and stands on the site of a much older church dedicated to St Agnes, who, according to popular belief, was martyred on this spot.
Work began in 1652 under the Roman architect Girolamo Rainaldi and his son Carlo, but the pair were soon replaced by Francesco Borromini, who came up with the magnificent design of the curved façade.
In 1655 Innocent X died, but Borromini did not find favour with the pope’s successor, Alexander VII (1655-67), and he was replaced by his collaborator, Giovanni Maria Baratta, who duly finished the façade and the two bell towers.
The size of the façade belies that of the church’s interior, which is quite small in scale and takes the form of a Greek cross. A remarkable effect of spaciousness is provided by the cupola. The fresco in the dome, which depicts the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is by Ciro Ferri. The pendentives were painted by Giovanni Battista Gaulli and depict the four cardinal virtues.
The altars are all decorated with bas-reliefs and statues rather than paintings, the work of sculptors such as Ercole Ferrata and Antonio Raggi.
A small chapel, entered from the south side of the church, displays a silver reliquary containing what purports to be St Agnes' tiny skull. There is a solitary statue of the saint perched high up on the facade of the church.
St Agnes (c.291-c.304) was martyred when she was only twelve or thirteen years old. Her attribute is a lamb, which was probably given to her because of the similarity of her name to the Latin agnus, a lamb. However this is a false derivation, as Agnes comes from the Greek meaning 'chaste'.
St Agnes is the patron saint of maidens and virgins. Her feast day is January 21st.
Pope Innocent X, who is buried in Sant' Agnese in Agone, was born Giovanni Battista Pamphilj, and his family's coat of arms, a dove holding a sprig of olive tree in its beak, is omnipresent both inside and outside the church.