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 St. Petronilla's grave as situated in the
Via Ardeatina near Sts. Nereus and Achilleus (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 Paul I translated to St.
Peter's. 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, 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
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,
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 St. 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 vorirenäisches 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. 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,
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 St. Peter's in the sixteenth century, St.
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.
DE ROSSI, Sepolcro di S. Petronilla nella basilica in via Ardeatina e sua translazione al Vaticano in Bullettino di arch. crist. (1878), 125 sq. (1879), 5 sq.; DUMAZ, La France et sainte Pétronille in Annales de St. Louis des François (1899), 517 sq.; URBAIN, Ein Martyrologium der christl. Gemeinde zu Rom (Leipzig, 1901), 152; DUFOURCQ, Les Gesta Martyrum romains, I (Paris, 1900) 251 sq.
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