St. Agnes of Rome
Agnes of Rome (c. 291 – c. 304) is a virgin–martyr, venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion, and Lutheranism. 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 victims, and virgins.
She 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”.
Her feast day is 21 January. In pre-1970 versions of the General Roman Calendar an additional feast of the same saint is given one week later, on 28 January (see Tridentine Calendar). The 1969 revision removed this as a duplication of the 21 January feast.
According to tradition, Saint Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility born 291 AD 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 21 January 304.
Agnes, whose name means “chaste” in Greek, 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 Agnes’s resolute devotion to religious purity, submitted her name to the authorities as a follower of Christianity.
The Prefect Sempronius condemned her to be dragged naked 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.
Agnes was buried beside the Via Nomentana in Rome. A few days after Agnes’s death, her foster-sister, Saint Emerentiana, was found praying by her tomb; she claimed to be the daughter of Agnes’s 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’s 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’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 Agnes’s tomb. Her skull is preserved in a separate chapel in the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Rome’s Piazza Navona.
Saint Agnes is 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“.
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