« Petilianus, a Donatist bishop Petronilla, saint and virgin Petrus, St., archbp. of Alexandria »

Petronilla, saint and virgin

Petronilla (1), saint and virgin. According to the legend related in the letter attributed to Marcellus, son of the prefect of the city, and incorporated in the apocryphal Acts of SS. Nereus and Achilleus, she was the daughter of St. Peter, was struck with palsy by her father and afterwards restored to health by him. Her great beauty led count Flaccus to fall in love with her and come with soldiers to take her by force as his wife. She rebuked him for coming with an armed band, and desired him, if he wished her as his wife, to send matrons and virgins on the third day to conduct her to his house. He agreed, and she passed the three days in prayer and fasting with her foster-sister Felicula, and on the third day died, after receiving the sacrament, and the women brought by Flaccus to escort her home celebrated her funeral. She was buried on the estate of Flavia Domitilla, on the road to Ardea, a mile and a half from Rome (Acts SS. May, iii. 10, 11, vii. 420–422).

The legend seems to have originated (see Lightfoot, S. Clement, 259–262) from the combination of two elements: (i) the Manichean apocryphal story mentioned by St. Augustine (c. Adimantum, xvii. Op. viii. in Migne, Patr. Lat. xlii. 161) that St. Peter by his prayers caused his daughter to be struck with palsy (the account in St. Augustine implies also her restoration to health by her father); (ii) the existence in the Christian cemetery of Flavia Domitilla of a sarcophagus inscribed with the words AURELIAE (or AUREAE) PETRONILLAE FILIAE DULCISSIMAE. Petronilla was assumed to be a diminutive of Petros; the inscription, it was imagined, had been engraved by the apostle himself. Later writers, e.g. Baronius, felt the supposition that St. Peter had a daughter to be a difficulty, and explained filia as a spiritual daughter, as St. Peter speaks of St. Mark as his son. Petronilla, however, is really derived from Petronius or Petro; and the founder of the Flavian family, the grandfather both of the emperor Vespasian and his brother, T. Flavius Sabinus, the head of that branch of the Flavii to which the supposed converts to Christianity belonged, was T. Flavius Petro of Reate. Petronilla therefore was probably one of the Aurelian gens, several of whom are shewn by the inscriptions discovered by De Rossi to have been buried in the same cemetery, and was by the mother's side a scion of the Flavian family, and therefore related to Flavia Domitilla, the owner of the land over the cemetery, and was probably, like her, a Christian convert.

Probably on account of her assumed relationship to St. Peter she was held in high veneration. Though the subterranean basilica constructed by pope Siricius between 391 and 395 contained the tombs of the martyrs SS. Nereus and Achilleus, it was in her honour it was dedicated, and there her body remained in its sarcophagus till in 757 it was translated by pope Paul I. to the Vatican and placed in what had been the mausoleum of the Christian emperors, close to St. Peter's (Liber Pontificalis in Patr. Lat. cxxviii. 1139).

Cav. de Rossi discovered and excavated the ancient basilica of St. Petronilla, determined the original positions of her sarcophagus and the tombs of SS. Nereus and Achilleus, and found a fresco, probably of the first half of the 4th cent. (Bull. 1875, 16), which represents St. Petronilla, designated in it a martyr, conducting one of her votaries to Paradise. A chamber was discovered (Athenaeum, Mar. 4, 1882) in these catacombs, its style of decoration, akin to the Pompeian, shewing its great antiquity. The inscription which had been over the door, written in characters of the Flavian era, is AMPLIATI, which suggests that this might be the tomb of the Ampliatus to whom St. Paul alludes (Rom. xvi. 8). An interesting account of these discoveries and a discussion of the legend of St. Petronilla and the history of her cultus is in Cav. de Rossi's papers (Bullettino di Archeologia Christiana, 1865, 46; 1874, 1, 68, 122 ; 1875, 1–77; 1878, 125–146; 1879, 1–20, 139–160; 1880, 169), and in vol. iv. of Roma Sotterranea.


« Petilianus, a Donatist bishop Petronilla, saint and virgin Petrus, St., archbp. of Alexandria »
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