Saint Petronilla

Jun 10, 2021 / Written by: Tonia Long


Saint Petronilla (literally, "little Peter)

Patroness of mountain travelers and invoked against fever

Virgin and Martyr

Petronilla, a first century virgin and martyr, is traditionally identified as the daughter of Saint Peter, which is entirely possible as Scripture mentions that it was Saint Peter’s wife that Jesus healed and who then began waiting on Our Lord and His apostles. It is also believed she may have been a convert of Saint Peter and thus his "spiritual daughter." Tradition has it that Saint Peter cured Saint Petronilla of palsy.

She was also related to St. Domitilla, who was exiled in the first century to Pandateria, which later was used as a catacomb cemetery. Inscriptions there describe Petronilla as a virgin and martyr.

Saint Petronilla through the centuries

Fourth century:

During the papacy of Pope Sirisius (384-399) a basilica was erected over her remains and those of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, after which her cult extended widely and her name was therefore admitted later into the martyrology. A painting, in which Petronilla is represented as receiving a deceased person 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.

Sixth and seventh centuries:

Almost all of the lists of the tombs of the most highly venerated Roman martyrs mention St. Petronilla's grave as situated in the Via Ardeatina near Saints Nereus and Achilleus, the veracity of which has been completely confirmed by the excavations in the Catacomb of Domitilla.

Photo of ancient catacombs. Access to catacombs through entry door to the right.

Engraving of Charlemagne, King of the Franks from 768, King of the Lombards from 774, and Emperor of the Romans from 800. During the Early Middle Ages, he united the majority of western and central Europe.

In the eighth century:

Pope Gregory III established a place of public prayer in the basilica, and her relics were translated to St. Peter's, where a chapel was dedicated in her honor. This building was altered and became the Chapel of St. Petronilla. Her chapel became the burial place for French kings.

Charlemagne (d. 814) and Carlomen (d. 771) were considered “adopted sons of St. Peter,” and they, along with the French monarchs who succeeded them, considered Petronilla their sister.

Her emblem, like that of St. Peter, is a set of keys. In Saint Peter’s, Mass is offered on her feast day (May 31) for France and attended by French residents of Rome.

Fourteenth century:

Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted a Santa Petronilla Altarpiece in the 1340s.

Fifteenth century:

The Healing of St. Petronilla is the name of a tapestry made for Guillaume de Hellande, Bishop of Beauvais.

Seventeenth century:

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

Burial of St Petonilla
The Burial of Saint Petronilla, by Guercino, 1621–22