Virgin and martyr of Rome. Little is known about this popular Roman saint who was martyred in the middle of the third or in the early fourth century. Her feast is recorded in the Depositio martyrum contained in the Chronograph of 354. She is mentioned by Ambrose (De virginibus 1.2; De officiis 1.41), in the Ambrosian hymn "Agnes beatae virginis," by Pope damasus in a still extant epitaph, and by Prudentius (Peristephanon 14). According to Ambrose and Prudentius she was beheaded, according to Damasus, burned to death, and according to the Agnes beatae virginis, she was strangled. Despite this contradictory evidence, the sources agree in that she was young, only 12 or 13, when martyred. A fully developed legend of the sixth century describes her as a beautiful young girl with many rivals for her hand. When she rejected them, she was delated to the governor as a Christian and sent to a house of prostitution. Those who came to see her were struck with awe. One who looked lustfully at her lost his sight but regained it through her prayers. Brought before the judge, she was condemned and executed and buried on the Via Salaria, in a catacomb eventually named after her. Before 349 a basilica was built over her tomb by Constantina, daughter of Constantine. This was restored by Pope symmachus (498–514) and completely rebuilt by honorius i (625–638). In the fourth century, Agnes was represented as an orant with arms outstretched in prayer. From the sixth century on she was portrayed as a young girl with a lamb in her arms or at her feet. Before the ninth century her head was removed from her tomb to the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran palace. When this was examined on April 19, 1903, it was seen to be that of a girl about 12 years old. Pius X gave the relic to the church of St. Agnes in Agone on the Piazza Navona in Rome.
Feast: Jan. 21.
Bibliography: l. andrÉ-delastre, Saint Agnes, tr. r. sheed (New York 1962). f. p. keyes, Three Ways of Love (New York 1963). e. josi, Bibliotheca Sanctorum (Rome 1961) 1:382–407. a. butler, The Lives of the Saints, ed. h. thurston and d. attwater (New York 1956) 1:133–137.
[m. j. costelloe]