Catholic Encyclopedia – Saint Petronilla

[Saint Petronilla]Article

Virgin, probably martyred at Rome at the end of the first century.

Almost all the sixth- and seventh-century lists of the tombs of the most highly venerated Roman martyrs mention Saint Petronilla’s grave as situated in the Via Ardeatina near Saints Nereus and Achilleus. These notices have been completely confirmed by the excavations in the Catacomb of Domitilla. One topography of the graves of the Roman martyrs, “Epitome libri de locis sanctorum martyrum”, locates on the Via Ardeatina a church of Saint Petronilla, in which Saints Nereus and Achilleus, as well as Petronilla, were buried (De Rossi, loc. cit., 180). This church, built into the above-mentioned catacomb, has been discovered, and the memorials found in it removed all doubt that the tombs of the three saints were once venerated there (De Rossi in “Bullettino di archeol. crist.”, 1874 sq., 5 sqq.). A painting, in which Petronilla is represented as receiving a deceased person (named Veneranda) into heaven, was discovered on the closing stone of a tomb in an underground crypt behind the apse of the basilica. Beside the saint’s picture is her name: Petronilla Mart. (yr). That the painting was done shortly after 356, is proved by an inscription found in the tomb. It is thus clearly established that Petronilla was venerated at Rome as a martyr in the fourth century, and the testimony must be accepted as certainly historical, notwithstanding the later legend which recognizes her only as a virgin (see below). Another known, but unfortunately no longer extant, memorial was the marble sacrophagus which contained her remains, under Paul I translated to Saint Peter’s. In the account of this in the “Liber Pontificalis” the inscription carved on the sacrophagus is given thus: Aureae Petronillae Filiae Dulcissimae (of the golden Petronilla, the sweetest daughter). We learn, however, from extant sixteenth-century notices concerning this sacrophagus that the first word was Aur. (Aureliae), so that the martyr’s name was Aurelia Petronilla. The second name comes from Petro or Petronius, and, as the name of the great-grandfather of the Christian consul, Flavius Clemens, was Titus Flavius Petronius, it is very possible that Petronilla was a relative of the Christian Flavii, who were descended from the senatorial family of the Aurelii. This theory would also explain why Petronilla was buried in the catacomb of the Flavian Domitilla. Like the latter, Petronilla may have suffered during the persecution of Domitian, perhaps not till later.

In the fourth-century Roman catalogue of martyrs’ feasts, which is used in the “Martyrologium Hieronymianum”, her name seems not to have been inserted. It occurs in the latter martyrology, but only as a later addition. Her name is given under 31 May and the Martyrologies of Bede and his imitators adopt the same date (Quentin, “Les martyrologes historiques”, Paris, 1908, 51, 363, etc.). The absence of her name from the fourth-century Roman calendar of feasts suggests that Petronilla died at the end of the first or during the second century, since no special feasts for martyrs were celebrated during this period. After the erection of the basilica over her remains and those of Saints Nereus and Achilleus in the fourth century, her cult extended widely and her name was therefore admitted later into the martyrology. A legend, the existence of which in the sixth century is proved by its presence in the list of the tombs of the Roman martyrs prepared by Abbot John at the end of this century (De Rossi, “Roma sotterranea”, I, 180), regards Petronilla as a real daughter of Saint Peter. In the Gnostic apocryphal Acts of Saint Peter, dating from the second century, a daughter of Saint Peter is mentioned, although her name is not given. The legend being widely propagated by these apocryphal Acts, Petronilla was identified at Rome with this supposed daughter of Saint Peter, probably because of her name and the great antiquity of her tomb. As such, but now as a virgin, not as a martyr, she appears in the legendary Acts of the martyrs Saint Nereus and Achilleus and in the “Liber Pontificalis”. From this legend of Saints Nereus and Achilleus a similar notice was admitted into the historical martyrologies of the Middle Ages and thence into the modern Roman Martyrology. In 757 the coffin containing the mortal remains of the saint was transferred to an old circular building (an imperial mausoleum dating from the end of the fourth century) near Saint Peter’s. This building was altered and became the Chapel of Saint Petronilla (De Rossi, “Inscriptiones christianae urbis Romae”, II, 225). The saint subsequently appears as the special patroness of the treaties concluded between the popes and the Frankish emperors. At the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s in the sixteenth century, Saint Petronilla’s remains were translated to an altar (still dedicated to her) in the upper end of the right side-aisle (near the cupola). Her feast falls on 31 May.

MLA Citation

  • Johann Peter Kirsch. “Saint Petronilla”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. Saints.SQPN.com. 9 August 2013. Web. 2 September 2014. <>