Saint Petronilla

Saint Petronilla

Infobox Saint
name= Saint Petronilla
death_date=1st century; possibly 3rd century
feast_day= May 31
venerated_in= Roman Catholic Church

imagesize= 250px
caption= "Saint Petronilla and the Sick". 14th century French manuscript.
attributes=Depicted being healed by Saint Peter the Apostle; early Christian maiden with a broom; lying dead but incorrupt in her coffin with flowers in her hair as the coffin is opened during renovations; receiving the newly dead into heaven; set of keys; spurning a marriage proposal, represented by a ring, being offered by a king; standing with Saint Peter; woman holding a set of keys; woman with a dolphin
patronage=The dauphins of France; mountain travellers; treaties between Popes and Frankish emperors; invoked against fever

Saint Petronilla (name variants include Aurelia Petronilla; Pernelle; Peroline; Perrenotte; Perrette; Perrine; Perronelle; Petronella; Peyronne; Peyronnelle; Pierrette; Pérette; Périne; Pétronille) (d. end of 1st century?; possibly 3rd century) is venerated as a virgin martyr by the Catholic Church. She died at Rome.

Who was Petronilla?

Petronilla is traditionally identified as the daughter of Saint Peter, though this may stem simply because of the similarity of names. It is believed she may have been a convert of the saint's (and thus a "spiritual daughter"), or a follower or servant. [] It is said that Saint Peter cured her of palsy.

Roman inscriptions, however, identify her simply as a martyr. She may have been related to Saint Domitilla. Stories associated with her include those that relate that she was so beautiful that Saint Peter had locked her up in a tower to keep her from eligible men; that a pagan king named Flaccus, wishing to marry her, led Petronilla to go on a hunger strike, from which she died.


Almost all the sixth- and seventh-century lists of the tombs of the most highly venerated Roman martyrs mention St. Petronilla's grave as situated in the Via Ardeatina near Sts. Nereus and Achilleus (Giovanni Battista De Rossi, "Roma sotterranea", I, 180-1). 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 St. Petronilla, in which Sts. 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 (Wilpert, "Die Malereien der Katakomben Roms", Freiburg, 1903, plate 213; De Rossi, ibid., 1875, 5 sqq.). 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 Pope Paul I translated to St. Peter's Basilica. In the account of this in the "Liber Pontificalis" (ed. Duchesne, I, 466) 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, Titus 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 (De Rossi-Duschesne, "Martyrol. Hieronym.", 69), 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 Sts. 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 St. Peter, dating from the second century, a daughter of St. Peter is mentioned, although her name is not given (Schmid, "Ein vorirenöische gnostisches Originalwerk in koptischer Sprache" in "Sitzungsber. der Berliner Akademie", 1896, 839 sqq.; Lipsius, "Die apokryphen Apostelgeschichten u. Apostellegenden", II, i, Brunswick, 1887, 203 sqq.).

The legend being widely propagated by these apocryphal Acts, Petronilla was identified at Rome with this supposed daughter of St. 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 St. Nereus and Achilleus and in the "Liber Pontificalis" (loc. cit.). From this legend of Sts. Nereus and Achilleus a similar notice was admitted into the historical martyrologies of the Middle Ages and thence into the modern "Roman Martyrology".

The Chapel of St. Petronilla

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 St. Peter's. This building was altered and became the Chapel of St. Petronilla (De Rossi, "Inscriptiones christianae urbis Romae", II, 225).

Her chapel became the burial place for French kings. Her association with the French crown stems from the fact that Charlemagne and Carloman were considered Saint Peter's adopted sons after 800. Petronilla, as the supposed daughter of Peter, became their patroness and of the treaties concluded between the Holy See and the Frankish emperors.

When St. Peter's was rebuilt in the 16th century, St. Petronilla's relics were translated to an altar dedicated to her in the upper end of the right side-aisle (near the cupola). The chapel includes embellishments by Michelangelo and Bramante.

Guercino painted an altarpiece painted called "The Burial of Saint Petronilla" in 1623. It simultaneously depicts the burial and the welcoming to heaven of the martyred St. Petronilla. The altar is dedicated to the saint, and contains her relics.

Her feast falls on 31 May. Mass on this day in St. Peter's is offered for France and attended by French residents of Rome.

She is patroness of the dauphins of France because a dolphin (in French, dauphin) was reputedly found carved on her sarcophagus. []

Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted a "Santa Petronilla Altarpiece" in the 1340s. "The Healing of St. Petronilla" is the name of a tapestry made for Guillaume de Hellande, Bishop of Beauvais, in the 15th century. [Marthe Crick-Kuntziger, "A Fragment of Guillaume de Hellande's Tapestries," "The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs", Vol. 45, No. 260. (Nov., 1924), pp. 224-227+230-231.]


External links

* [ Article by Elizabeth Lev]
* [ Petronilla] at the Catholic Encyclopedia
* [ Patron Saints Index: Petronilla]
* [ Saints of May 31: Petronilla]
* [ Altar in St Peter's Basilica]
* [ Image of Petronilla from catacomb]

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