St. Agnes (c. 292–c. 304) is one of the first women venerated in the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy of saints. She was believed to have been martyred at the age of 12 because she refused to marry the son of a Roman official, instead declaring herself committed to Christ during an era when Christianity was still an underground religion. In the decades after her death, Agnes's tomb became a place of pilgrim age.
There is little reliable evidence giving the specific dates of Agnes's life, but it is thought that she died in the last wave of persecutions of Christians that took place in the Roman Empire, a surge of terrorism known as the Persecution of Diocletian which occurred in 304. After this point, Agnes's name appears several times in the historical written record. Seven decades after her purported death, St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and a former lawyer, mentions that when Agnes appeared before authorities to answer charges of practicing Christianity, she was still a minor and therefore according to Roman law of that time not yet of an age to bear witness in court, or even be tried. Other sources refer to Agnes's nurse; in Roman times nurses for girls from affluent families usually remained with their charges until the girls were of marriageable age, which was twelve. St. Augustine, another early Father of the Church, claimed Agnes was 13 at the time of her death in his Agnes puella tredecim annorum.
Died under Diocletian's Edict
Agnes may have been the daughter of a Roman noble family, and one surname that has been ventured is that of the Clodia Crescentiana. The story surrounding her life asserts that she consecrated her life to Christ at the age of ten, which brought with that a commitment to remain a virgin. Her parents would have had to consent to this, and they may have been practicing Christians as well. In the years following Christ's death in 33 C.E., the religion had grown in numbers, and its adherents refused to venerate either the Roman emperor or the Roman state, claiming allegiance instead to Christ, the son of a supreme being worshiped in the Jewish religion, and his father. The new religion, initially condemned as a cult, had by now spread from Palestine, where Christ was put to death by Roman colonial officials, through the Middle East and into Europe. Roman officials, who controlled much of that part of the world, treated Christianity's practitioners harshly, and there were periodic crackdowns. In these persecutions, Christians were brought before tribunals and strongly urged to renounce their beliefs. Many chose the alternative, which was a death sentence often carried out before large crowds under the most horrific of circumstances.
Thought to Have Spurned Marriage
It is thought that a young Roman, also the son of high-ranking official, wanted to marry Agnes. This may have been a son of either the prefect Maximum Herculeus or the prefect Sempronius. The preteen reportedly replied, "The one to whom I am betrothed is Christ whom the angels serve," according to Three Ways of Love, by Frances Parkinson Keyes. Agnes may have been taken by Roman soldiers from her family home and brought before a panel of judges. Other sources say she was forcibly removed and placed in a house of prostitution.
There is another version of the events surrounding Agnes's martyrdom, and it is found in an inscription at the foot of a marble staircase leading to a sepulcher located in the Roman church erected over her burial site in her honor and named Sant' Agnese fuori le muri ("St. Agnes outside the Walls"). It is known that Pope Damasus wrote the inscription, and that it was carved before 384. According to Louis André-Delastre in his book Saint Agnes, the inscription reads: "Tradition tells us that her holy parents used to tell the story of how the young Agnes, when she heard the mournful notes of the trumpet, ran from her nurse's side and defied the threats and ragings of the cruel tyrant, who wished to have her noble body burnt in flames." Damasus also reports that an imperial edict had been issued against Christians, and when Agnes learned of it, she publicly announced that she was one herself.
Pleaded for Death
The account of Prudentius, a Spanish poet whose 405 work Peristephanon also provides a version of Agnes's story, was the first to mention that she had been taken to a brothel. If so, it may have been one known to have been located under the arch in the Stadium of Domitian (now Rome's Piazza Navona). This also may have been the location of the forum where Agnes's death occurred. It is reported that in the eighth century an oratory was built over the site where Agnes met her death, and that this oratory was consecrated as a church in 1123 by Pope Calixtus II.
Church histories note that Agnes refused to renounce her religion before the judges, and as punishment she may have been sentenced to serve as a virgin sacrifice to pagan deities. The Roman goddess Minerva has been mentioned in some reports of the martyrdom of Agnes, and the ceremonial fire from Minerva's temple, located on the Aventine Hill, may have been brought to the forum where Agnes was being tried, or she may have been taken there. The official church story asserts that while on trial, Agnes repeatedly appealed to Christ, which angered the tribunal. One judge reportedly asked the crowd that had gathered to watch the trial whether anyone among them wished to marry her, and that some young men came forward, hoping to spare Agnes's life. Most sources also note that one spectator who looked at her with lust instead was blinded, but this detail is also found in the reports of her being taken to a brothel. According to André-Delastre's translation of the Ambrose account, Agnes told the judges, "It is wrong for the bride to keep the bridegroom waiting. He who chose me first shall be the only one to have me. What are you waiting for, executioner? Destroy this body, for unwanted eyes may desire it."
Legend has it that Agnes went unshackled to her death because all the irons were too large for her wrists. There are various reports of how she died. Some accounts say she was burned at the stake, while Ambrose claims her death came by sword. Beheading has also been mentioned, or the judges may have taken some pity on her and ordered what was called a gentle death, usually reserved for women in the Roman era. In this, the head was held back and the throat slit at the base of the neck.
Devotional Cult Grew
Because Agnes's body was not thrown into the river Tiber, which was common practice for martyred Christians at the time, it is thought that her family may have intervened, which yields evidence that they were indeed well connected. She was buried on cemetery land owned by her parents, and a week later they came to pray at the grave. There, according to the church history, they saw a vision of her surrounded by other virgins and with a lamb at her side. Others also came to visit the burial site, but it was thought to have been reached by an underground passageway for a time.
In 313, with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity and his issue of the Edict of Milan, Agnes's religion was officially tolerated throughout the Empire. There is a story that his daughter, Constantina, was cured of leprosy when she visited the shrine to Agnes, and that she urged her father to have a basilica erected over the grave, which became the church of St. Agnes outside the Walls. The church, which dates from 364, stands on via Nomentana and contains Damasus's inscription. It was renovated during the reign of Pope Honorius in the seventh century. Ambrose's writings on Agnes, De Virginibus, probably came from a sermon he delivered in Milan in 376 on her feast day, which had likely been the urging of his sister Marcellina, a devout woman who is also thought to have visited Agnes's shrine.
Inspired Keats Poem
Agnes's feast day is January 21, the day she is thought to have been martyred. The first mention of this comes in the Depositio Martyrum, a list of martyrs, from 354. In the Roman Catholic iconography, she is usually depicted holding a lamb, a symbol of virginity. She is the patron saint of engaged couples, gardeners, Girl Scouts, and victims of sexual assault. During medieval times rituals linked to virginity and marriage arose surrounding her name and feast day. A young woman could forego supper on the night of January 20, it was said, and she would dream of her future husband thanks to the saint's intervention. Other customs involved sewing one's stockings together, or putting rosemary in one's shoes, also to glean a vision of one's future mate. In parts of Scotland grain was scattered in cornfields by unwed men and women, who recited a poem as they did so asking for guidance to "let me see/The lad (or lass) who is to marry me." Nineteenth-century Romantic poet John Keats wrote an epic poem, "The Eve of St. Agnes," linked to these superstitions.
On Agnes's feast day, two lambs from the Trappist monastery at Tre Fontaine outside Rome are adorned with crowns and ribbons of red and white and blessed at her church by the pope. They are then taken to the abbey of St. Cecilia in Trastavere, also in Rome, where Benedictine nuns raise them. Their wool is shorn on Holy Thursday, and palliums are then made from it. These are circular ceremonial bands worn over the shoulders in Roman Catholic ecclesiastical dress and signify one of the highest church offices. The pope bestows a dozen or so annually to his archbishops.
André-Delastre, Louis, Saint Agnes, translated by Rosemary Sheed, Macmillan, 1962.
Catholic Encyclopedia, Appleton, 1907.
Keyes, Frances Parkinson, Three Ways of Love, Hawthorn Books, 1963.
"St. Agnes," Domestic-Church.com, http://www.domesticchurch.com/content.dcc/19990101/saints/stagnes.htm (January 9, 2004).