St.Agnes of Rome

Born c. 291
Died c. 304
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodox Churches, Anglican Communion, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Canonized Pre-Congregation
Major shrine Church of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura and the Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone, both in Rome
Feast January 21; before Pope John XXIII revised the calendar, there was a second feast on January 28
Attributes a lamb
Patronage 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


Agnes of Rome (c. 291 – c.304) is a virgin–martyr, venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic Churches, the Anglican Communion, and in Eastern Orthodoxy.She is also known as Saint Agnes and Saint Ines. Her memorial, which commemorates her martyrdom, is 21 January in both the Roman Catholic calendar of saints and in the General Roman Calendar of 1962. The 1962 calendar includes a second feast on 28 January, which commemorates her birthday. Agnes is depicted in art with a lamb, as her name resembles the Latin word for "lamb", agnus. The name "Agnes" is actually derived from the feminine Greek adjective "hagnē" (ἁγνή) meaning "chaste, pure, sacred".

According to tradition, Saint Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility born c. 291 and raised in a Christian family. She suffered martyrdom at the age of twelve or thirteen during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, on January 21 304.

The Prefect Sempronius wished Agnes to marry his son, and on Agnes' refusal he condemned her to death. As Roman law did not permit the execution of virgins, Sempronius had a naked Agnes dragged through the streets to a brothel. Various versions of the legend give different methods of escape from this predicament. In one, as she prayed, her hair grew and covered her body. It was also said that all of the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind. In another the son of the Prefect is struck dead, but revived after Agnes prayed for him, causing her release. There is then a trial from which Sempronius excuses himself, and another figure presides, sentencing her to death. When led out to die she was tied 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 the blood of Agnes poured to the stadium floor where other Christians soaked up the blood with cloths. She did not want to marry but wanted to have God in her life.

A few days after Agnes' 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 canonized. The daughter of Constantine I, Saint Constance, was also said to have been cured of leprosy after praying at Agnes' tomb. Emerentiana and Constance appear in the scenes from the life of Agnes on the 14th century Royal Gold Cup in the British Museum.

Agnes' bones are conserved in the church of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura in Rome, built over the catacomb that housed Agnes' tomb. Her skull is preserved in a side chapel in the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone in Rome's Piazza Navona.

An interesting custom is observed on her feast day. Two lambs are brought from the Trappist abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome to the Pope to be blessed. On Holy Thursday they are shorn, and from the wool is woven the pallium which the pope gives to a newly consecrated metropolitan archbishop as a sign of his jurisdiction and his union with the pope.

Saint Agnes is the patron saint of young girls; folk custom called for them to practice 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".

She is represented in art as a young blonde girl in robes, holding a palm branch in her hand and a lamb at her feet or in her arms.

In the historical novel Fabiola or, the Church of the Catacombs, written by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman in 1854, Agnes is the soft-spoken teenage cousin and confidant of the protagonist, the beautiful noblewoman Fabiola.

She is sometimes misconstrued to be the St Agnes referred to in the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas"; as the peasant who Wenceslas sees, lives, "Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain." The Saint being referred to is actually St. Agnes of Bohemia.

Hrotsvitha, the tenth century nun and poetess, wrote a play whose subject was St. Agnes. Grace Andreacchi wrote a play based on the legends surrounding the martyrdom of St. Agnes.

                                        The Skull of Saint Agnes of Rome

Behold the skull of Agnes
Of all the virgin martyrs of Rome none was held in such high honour by the primitive church, since the fourth century, as Saint Agnes. In the ancient Roman calendar of the feasts of the martyrs her feast is assigned to the 21st of January, to which is added a detail as to the name of the road called Via Nomentana near which her grave was located. The earliest sacramentaries give the same date for her feast, and it is on this day that the Latin Church even now keeps her memory sacred. Since the close of the fourth century the Fathers of the Church and Christian poets have sung her praises and extolled her virginity and heroism under torture. On one point only is there mutual agreement, the youth of the Christian heroine was twelve or thirteen years of age. Pope Damasus depicts her as hastening to martyrdom from the lap of her mother or nurse. We have no reason whatever for doubting this tradition. It indeed explains very well the renown of the youthful martyr.

After her martyrdom the body of the virgin martyr was placed in a separate sepulchre on the Via Nomentana, and around her tomb there grew up a larger catacomb that bore her name. The original slab which covered her remains, with the inscriptions Agne sanctissima, is probably the same one which is now preserved in the Museum at Naples. During the reign of Constantine, through the efforts of his daughter Constantina, a basilica was erected over the grave of Saint Agnes, which was later entirely remodeled by Pope Honorius, and has since remained unaltered. In the apse is a mosaic showing the martyr amid flames, with a sword at her feet. A beautiful relief of the saint is found on a marble slab that dates from the fourth century and was originally a part of the altar of her church. 

Since the middle ages Saint Agnes has been represented with a lamb, the symbol of her virginal innocence. On her feast two lambs are solemnly blessed, and from their wool are made the palliums sent by the Pope to archbishops.


 

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