ܐܦܛܪܘܦܘܬܐ ܦܛܪܝܪܟܝܬܐ  ܕܡܪܥܝܬܐ ܕܐܘܚܕ̈ܢܐ ܡܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ܕܐܡܝܪܟܐ ܐܦܛܪܘܦܘܬܐ ܦܛܪܝܪܟܝܬܐ  ܕܡܪܥܝܬܐ ܕܐܘܚܕ̈ܢܐ ܡܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ܕܐܡܝܪܟܐ ܐܦܛܪܘܦܘܬܐ ܦܛܪܝܪܟܝܬܐ  ܕܡܪܥܝܬܐ ܕܐܘܚܕ̈ܢܐ ܡܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ܕܐܡܝܪܟܐ

ܐܦܛܪܘܦܘܬܐ ܦܛܪܝܪܟܝܬܐ
 ܕܡܪܥܝܬܐ ܕܐܘܚܕ̈ܢܐ ܡܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ܕܐܡܝܪܟܐ

Archdiocese of the Western USA

St. Agnes, , January 21

Agnes, the martyr (A.D. 304)

No saint was more revered in the early Church than this young girl who suffered persecution under the Emperor Diocletian and who, according to her 5th-century acts, was only 13-years-old when she died. The name Agnes in Greek means 'chaste' and in Latin signifies a 'lamb' (Saint Augustine, Sermon 274). Thus, she represents all that is pure and virtuous in womanhood.

Agnes was martyred at the beginning of the Diocletian persecutions undertaken between 303 and 305 to wipe out the scourge of Christian impiety. From a Roman viewpoint, Christians were not killed for their faith but for treason, since they would not sacrifice to the gods who protected the empire. After all, the Romans were able to incorporate the gods of all other people they conquered--why were Christians so obstinate? There were Jews who were considered good Romans, but they kept to themselves for the most part (see R. L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans saw them, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984, which incorporates the writings of Pliny, Celsus, Galen, Porphyry, and Julian the Apostate).

Unlike the Jews, Christianity gained converts from among the nobility, even after earlier persecutions. They became a threat to the world order. According to Markus, the Roman Empire was based on racial distinctions, patriarchal authority, and slavery--each of these patterns were threatened by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christian military recruits could not be trusted to defend Rome (cf. Maximilian in Numidia and Marcellus in Tangier).

The Christian rejection of the Roman view of marriage was also a threat. It was a civic obligation for each woman to have as many children as possible because Romans believed they lived through their progeny. The Christians, believing in eternal life, did not see marriage and family as absolutely necessary for everyone. And, in fact, the Encratites, who highly prized perpetual virginity of both male and female, strongly influenced Christianity during this period. With this background in mind, we come to the story of Saint Agnes.

Agnes was born of a noble Roman family--probably the Clodia Crescentiana. About age 10, Agnes consecrated herself to Christ, probably with her parent's permission, otherwise she would have been forced to marry the man of her father's choosing. It is likely that her father was also a Christian. About age 12 or 13, she rejected the advances of the son of a high official (the Prefect Maximum Herculeus?) with the words, "The one to whom I am betrothed is Christ whom the angels serve. He was the first to choose me. I shall be His alone." Thereupon she was denounced as a Christian.

Gill reports another version that says the prefect's son was attracted by her beauty and wealth, sought her hand in marriage, and was rebuffed because she had given her life to Christ 'to whom I keep my troth.' When he pressed her and she still refused his suit, he complained to her father, who, greatly disturbed when he discovered she was a Christian, considered her mad and treated her as such. She was urged by her family to submit, and when she still refused, they planned to make her a vestal virgin in a Roman temple. But young though she was, she showed great maturity and a determined will, "Do you think that I shall dedicate myself to gods of senseless stone!" "You are only a child," they replied. "I may be a child," she answered, "but faith dwells not in years, but in the heart" (Gill).

In Gill's version, when it was realized that they could not prevail, they removed her clothes and thrust her into the open street, where, in shame, she loosened her hair to cover her nakedness.

Everyone thought that the sight of the tools of torture would cause Agnes to waver; when these elicited joy rather than terror in her, the governor became enraged and threatened to send her to a house of prostitution. "You may," said Agnes, "stain your sword with my blood; but you will never be able to profane my body, consecrated to Christ."

In all versions she was thrown into a brothel, but untouched because of her meekness and purity. She is said to have had blonde hair that was long enough to cover her nakedness (or spontaneously grew to do so) or that an angel brought her a robe, white as snow, to cover her body. Because of her declaration that God would not allow her body to be profaned, men were afraid to touch her. One man who was rude to her was suddenly blinded, but she restored his sight by prayer.

Finally, she was sentenced to death. But first she was mocked and insulted, and they cried after her in the streets. When the executioner hesitated, Agnes told him, "Do not delay. This body draws from some a kind of admiration that I hate. Let it perish."

Martyrdom may have been by fire, sword, decapitation, or strangulation during the Diocletian persecutions in the early 4th century. She could not be shackled because her wrists were too small. Some stories use all three successively:

A fire was kindled, and when she was placed on the pyre she prayed, "Thy Name I bless and glorify, world without end. I confess Thee with my lips, and with my heart I altogether desire Thee." When she had finished praying, it was found that the fire had extinguished itself. Then they bound her with fetters, but the fetters fell from her. She was killed in the end by a sword, and after her death crowds followed her to her grave.

Because of the influence of her family, her body was not thrown into the river (the usual), but was buried in the family cemetery, which formed part of the catacombs that now bear her name and that adjoin the church, also dedicated to her, on the Via Nomentana. Her fame quickly spread.

When the Emperor Constantine wished to have his daughter baptized, he did so near the spot where Agnes was buried. And, in 324 (or 350?), just a few years after her death the church of Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura (which still stands today) was erected by Constantine over her grave.

Although her feast is January 21, the octave of her feast (January 28) was her actual birthday. "On that day her parents went to pray at her tomb. There they were granted a vision in which they saw her surrounded by a bevy of virgins, resplendent with light; and on her right hand was seen a lamb whiter than snow.

Saint Ambrose wrote: "At such a tender age a young girl has scarcely enough courage to bear the angry looks of her father and a tiny puncture from a needle makes her cry as if it were a wound. And still this little girl had enough courage to face the sword. She was fearless in the bloody hands of the executioner. She prayed, she bowed her head. Behold in one victim the twofold martyrdom of chastity and faith."

Though much of her story is unreliable (it wasn't recorded until about 415), there is no doubt that Agnes suffered martyrdom and was buried on the Via Nomentana. Her name and the date of her feast was included in the calendar of martyrs drawn up in 354. There are no less than five ancient church dedications to her honor in England (Attwater, Balsdon, Benedictines, Bentley, Butler, Cenci, Cioran, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Gill, Husenbeth, Keyes, Markus, Martindale, White).

Agnes is patroness of virginal innocence, betrothed couples, gardeners, and maidens. She is invoked for chastity (Roeder, White).

In art, Agnes is pictured as a young maiden with long hair and a lamb (agnus), because of the resemblance of her name with that of the animal, since the 6th century mosaics at San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Farmer). Sometimes she may be shown: (1) with a sword in her throat; (2) naked, covered by an angel or by her long hair; (3) crowned and holding a scroll; (4) with a lamb (symbol of her purity and sacrifice) and a palm; (5) with a dove having a ring in its beak (Roeder, White).

Many portrayals of Saint Agnes survive from throughout the centuries. There are Renaissance paintings by Duccio and Tintoretto; medieval stained glass windows; and a cycle of painting of her on a gold and enamel cup which previously belonged to the Duke of Berry and passed through the Duke of Bedford to King Henry VI of England and on to the British Museum (Farmer).