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.
Agnes is depicted in art with a lamb, evoking her name which resembles the Latin word for “lamb”, agnus (the given name is Greek, from hagnē ἁγνή “chaste, pure”). She is also shown with a martyr’s palm. She is the patron saint of girls and chastity.
Agnes’ feast day is 21 January.
Substantially the circumstances of her martyrdom are believed to be authentic, though the legend cannot be proven true, and many details of the fifth century Acts of Saint Agnes are open to criticism. A church was built over her tomb, and her relics venerated.
According to tradition, Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility, born in AD 291 and raised in an early Christian family. She suffered martyrdom at the age of twelve or thirteen during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, on 21 January 304.
A beautiful young girl from a wealthy family, Agnes had many suitors of high rank, and the young men, slighted by her resolute devotion to religious purity, submitted her name to the authorities as a follower of Christianity.
The Prefect Sempronius condemned Agnes to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. In one account, as she prayed, her hair grew and covered her body. It was also said that all of the men that attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind. The son of the prefect was struck dead but revived after she prayed for him, causing her release. There commenced a trial from which Sempronius recused himself, allowing another figure to preside and sentence St. Agnes to death. She was led out and bound 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 her blood poured to the stadium floor where other Christians soaked it up with cloths.
Agnes depicted on the medieval Royal Gold Cup in the British Museum.
Agnes was buried beside the Via Nomentana in Rome. A few days after her death, her foster-sister, Emerentiana, was found praying by her tomb; she claimed to be the daughter of Agnes’ 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 canonised. The daughter of Constantine I, Constantina, was said to have been cured of leprosy after praying at Agnes’ tomb. She and Emerentiana appear in the scenes from the life of Agnes on the 14th-century Royal Gold Cup in the British Museum.
An early account of Agnes’ death, stressing her young age, steadfastness and virginity, but not the legendary features of the tradition, is given by Ambrose. Agnes was venerated as a saint at least as early as the time of St Ambrose, based on an existing homily. She is commemorated in the Depositio Martyrum of Filocalus (354) and in the early Roman Sacramentaries.
Agnes’ bones are conserved beneath the high altar in the church of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura in Rome, built over the catacomb that housed her tomb. Her skull is preserved in a separate chapel in the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Rome’s Piazza Navona.
Her feast day is 21 January.
Because of the legend around her martyrdom, she is patron saint of those seeking chastity and purity.
Agnes is also 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”
Since the Middle Ages, Agnes has traditionally been depicted as a young girl in robes, with a lamb, the symbol of her virginal innocence, and often, like many other martyrs, with a palm branch.