Saint of the Day – 21 January – St Agnes (c 291- c 304) Virgin and Martyr – Patronages – Betrothed couples; chastity; Children of Mary; Colegio Capranica of Rome; crops; gardeners; Girl Guides; girls; rape victims; virgins; the diocese of Rockville Centre, New York; the city of Fresno. Attributes – crown of thorns, lamb, woman with long hair and a lamb, sometimes with a sword at her throat, woman with a dove which holds a ring in its beak, woman with a lamb at her side. She is one of seven women who, along with the Blessed Virgin, are commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass. She is the patron saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape survivors, virgins and the Children of Mary. Agnes is depicted in art with a lamb, from the Latin word for “lamb”, agnus. However, the name “Agnes” is actually derived from the feminine Greek adjective hagnē (ἁγνή) meaning “chaste, pure, sacred”. She is also shown with a martyr’s palm.
Saint Agnes of Rome was a member of the Roman nobility born in AD 291 and raised in an Early Catholic family. She suffered martyrdom at the age of twelve or thirteen during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, on 21 January 304. She was a beautiful young girl of wealthy family and therefore had many suitors of high rank. Details of her story are unreliable but legend holds that the young men, slighted by her resolute devotion to religious purity, submitted her name to the authorities as a follower of Christianity.
The Prefect Sempronius condemned Agnes to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. In one account, as she prayed, her hair grew and covered her body. It was also said that all of the men that attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind. The son of the prefect is struck dead but revived after she prayed for him, causing her release. There is then a trial from which Sempronius recuses himself and another figure presides, sentencing her to death. She was led out and bound to a stake but the bundle of wood would not burn, or the flames parted away from her, whereupon the officer in charge of the troops drew his sword and beheaded her, or, in some other texts, stabbed her in the throat. It is also said that her blood poured to the stadium floor where other Christians soaked it up with cloths.
Agnes was buried beside the Via Nomentana in Rome. A few days after her death, her foster-sister, Saint Emerentiana, was found praying by her tomb; she claimed to be the daughter of Agnes’ wet nurse, and was stoned to death after refusing to leave the place and reprimanding the pagans for killing her foster sister. Emerentiana was also later canonised. The daughter of Constantine I, Saint Constance, was said to have been cured of leprosy after praying at Agnes’ tomb. She and Emerentiana appear in the scenes from the life of Agnes on the 14th-century Royal Gold Cup in the British Museum.
An early account of Agnes’ death, stressing her young age, steadfastness and virginity, but not the legendary features of the tradition, is given by Saint Ambrose.
Agnes was venerated as a saint at least as early as the time of St Ambrose, based on an existing homily. She is commemorated in the Depositio Martyrum of Filocalus (354) and in the early Roman Sacramentaries.
Agnes’s bones are conserved beneath the high altar in the church of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura in Rome, built over the catacomb that housed her tomb. Her skull is preserved in a separate chapel in the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Rome’s Piazza Navona.
Because of the legend around her martyrdom, she is patron saint of those seeking chastity and purity. Agnes is also the patron saint of young girls. Folk custom called for them to practise rituals on Saint Agnes’ Eve (20–21 January) with a view to discovering their future husbands. This superstition has been immortalised in John Keats’s poem, The Eve of Saint Agnes.