St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, Pray For Us

SAINTS & ART: St. Agnes is a reminder that the gift of virginity exists as an expression of devotion and availability to God

Domenichino, “Saint Agnes,” ca. 1620, Royal Collection
Domenichino, “Saint Agnes,” ca. 1620, Royal Collection (photo: Public Domain)

Agnes is one of those seven women (along with Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy et al.) mentioned in the First Eucharistic Prayer. All seven were martyrs.

We met St. Lucy last month. We’ll meet St. Agatha in two weeks.

St. Agnes was a contemporary of St. Lucy — both lived at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth centuries. St. Lucy was martyred in Sicily. St. Agnes was killed in Rome around A.D. 304.

As previously noted, while the Church would be free and legal within a decade, it’s sometimes darkest before the dawn. The Diocletian Persecution ran from 303-311. It was particularly intense and relatively widespread in the Empire. Although Diocletian himself abdicated the imperial throne in 305, his policies went on for some time and were really only finally ended decisively with Constantine the Great’s Edict of Milan in 313, which legalized Christianity.

St. Agnes was about 12 or 13 when she was killed. Tradition has it she came from a Roman noble family. 

Age 12 or 13 was already the time of puberty and, with shorter life spans, a girl of that age — particularly an attractive one coming from money — would have had suitors. When she turned them down because she had consecrated her chastity to Christ, at least one of the jilted lads turned Agnes’ name over to the Roman authorities, suspecting she was a Christian. 

In Rome, marriage depended on exchange of consent, so from that angle, Agnes had rights. But law is one thing, culture another, and in Roman culture a girl should have been seeking a suitable marriage and the only reason she might have turned down so many prospects was her association with this strange, anti-sexual cult called Christianity. 

So, having been denounced, the Roman Prefect Sempronius ordered Agnes to be stripped and dragged to a brothel through Rome’s streets.  Tradition has it that, as she prayed, her hair grew to cover her nakedness. Another tradition has it that men who tried to rape her along the way were struck blind. So Agnes was put on trial, with Sempronius recusing himself.  Sentenced to death, she was to be burned at the stake — except that the wood would not burn. The head of the soldiers then took a sword and, depending on the account, either beheaded her or stabbed her through the throat, causing her death. She was buried near the Via Nomentana.

The cult of many martyrs began during the Diocletian Persecution and we know from St. Ambrose’s own account that Agnes was already venerated in his day, i.e., the second half of the fourth century. 

Ven. Tomás Morales notes in his lives of the saints, Semblanzas de testigos de Cristo, that the etymology of Agnes’ name points to two key characteristics about her life. Agne (Ἁγνή) in Greek means “pure” or “holy.” Agnus in Latin means “lamb” (as in Agnus Dei, “Lamb of God”). So her name already augured her life: purity consecrated to holiness for which she would be slain, like a pure and sacrificial lamb.

St. Agnes had a great devotion to our Lady. As Father Morales notes, St. Athanasius wrote that Agnes’ heart was fired by contemplation of her “for whom virginity began to exist in the world.” St. Ambrose speaks of Agnes as having confided herself to the Immaculate Heart of Mary “the Mistress of Virginity … who was not only a virgin but who ‘infects’ with virginity all who approach her.” 

The counter-cultural witness of virginity and sexual chastity is clearly nothing new. It was as revolutionary in Agnes’ day in the declining Roman Empire as it is in ours. As in ours, adherence to Catholic sexual morality put her at odds with those who controlled the levers of cultural, social, and political power. Should we not encourage young people — especially young women — to consider what a value virginity represented that girls their age like Lucy, Agnes and Agatha gave their lives for it?

It was not some “pelvic issue.” Agnes committed herself to virginity out of love. Despite contemporary protestations that “love is love,” modernity cannot understand that love measures and norms sexuality, not the other way around. 

Domenico Zampieri (1581-1641), a Baroque painter from Bologna,captures all those attributes in his depiction of St. Agnes. Zampieri is generally known as “Domenichino,” a diminutive of his Christian name because of his shortness. The painting dates from about 1620.

St. Agnes is, of course, the central figure. She is depicted in prayer because, after all, virginity does not exist for itself but as an expression of closeness and availability to God. The affluence of St. Agnes’ garments indicate her affluent social position.

  Chubby cherubs — a common feature of Baroque art — attend St. Agnes. One carries a golden crown held over her head, indicative of the crowns of virginity and martyrdom which Agnes won.

(In his youth, St. Maximilian Kolbe recounted having a vision of the Blessed Virgin who offered him a white crown and a red crown, the former of virginity, the latter of martyrdom. She asked him which he chose. He said he wanted both. The consecrated religious died a martyr in the Auschwitz starvation bunker, volunteering his life out of love in substitution for another prisoner condemned to death). 

A second cherub tends a sheep. The sheep is a common symbol or “attribute” for St. Agnes, for the etymological reasons of her name indicated above. An “attribute” in Christian iconography or religious art is a symbol that is associated with a particular saint that tells the informed viewer who it is that is depicted in a painting, e.g., St. Peter will usually be carrying keys (“the keys of the Kingdom” given him by Christ) and St. Paul a sword, the instrument of his martyrdom. 

To Agnes’ right, on the column, is a bas-relief with one figure carrying an ax. One commentator suggests it is a depiction of a scene of sacrifice, pointing to Agnes’ own sacrifice, a pure lamb following the Lamb of God. And while scenes of classical Rome and Greece were frequent in Renaissance and later Baroque art — and certainly not out of time (“anachronistic”) for Agnes — the classical elements may also indicate Agnes’ rejection of the values of that pagan world.