Of all the virgin martyrs of Rome none was held in such high honour by the primitive church, since the fourth century, as St Agnes.
In the ancient Roman calendar of the feasts of the martyrs (Depositio Martyrum), incorporated into the collection of Furius Dionysius Philocalus, dating from 354 and often reprinted, e.g. in Ruinart [Acta Sincera Martyrum (ed. Ratisbon, 1859), 63 sqq.], her feast is assigned to 21 January, to which is added a detail as to the name of the road (Via Nomentana) near which her grave was located. The earliest sacramentaries give the same date for her feast, and it is on this day that the Latin Church even now keeps her memory sacred.
Since the close of the fourth century the Fathers of the Church and Christian poets have sung her praises and extolled her virginity and heroism under torture. It is clear, however, from the diversity in the earliest accounts that there was extant at the end of the fourth century no accurate and reliable narrative, at least in writing, concerning the details of her martyrdom. On one point only is there mutual agreement – the youth of the Christian heroine. St Ambrose gives her age as twelve (De Virginibus, I, 2; P.L., XVI, 200-202: Haec duodecim annorum martyrium fecisse traditur), St Augustine as thirteen (Agnes puella tredecim annorum; Sermo cclxxiii, 6, P.L., XXXVIII, 1251), which harmonizes well with the words of Prudentius: Aiunt jugali vix habilem toro (Peristephanon, Hymn xiv, 10 in Ruinart, Act. Sinc., ed cit. 486). Damasus depicts her as hastening to martyrdom from the lap of her mother or nurse (Nutricis gremium subito liquisse puella; in St. Agneten, 3, ed. Ihm, Damasi epigrammata, Leipzig, 1895, 43, n. 40). We have no reason whatever for doubting this tradition. It indeed explains very well the renown of the youthful martyr.
We have already cited the testimony of the three oldest witnesses to the martyrdom of St Agnes:
- St Ambrose, De Virginibus, I, 2;
- the inscription of Pope Damasus engraved on marble, the original of which may yet be seen at the foot of the stairs leading to the sepulchre and church of St Agnes (Sant’ Agnese fuori le muri);
- Prudentius, Peristephanon, Hymn 14.
The rhetorical narrative of St Ambrose, in addition to the martyr’s age, gives nothing except her execution by the sword. The metrical panegyric of Pope Damasus tells us that immediately after the promulgation of the imperial edict against the Christians Agnes voluntarily declared herself a Christian, and suffered very steadfastly the martyrdom of fire, giving scarcely a thought to the frightful torments she had to endure, and concerned only with veiling, by means of her flowing hair, her chaste body which had been exposed to the gaze of the heathen multitude (Nudaque profusum crinem per membra dedisse, Ne domini templum facies peritura videret).
Prudentius, in his description of the martyrdom, adheres rather to the account of St Ambrose, but adds a new episode: The judge threatened to give over her virginity to a house of prostitution, and even executed this final threat; but when a young man turned a lascivious look upon the virgin, he fell to the ground stricken with blindness, and lay as one dead. Possible this is what Damasus and Ambrose refer to, in saying that the purity of St Agnes was endangered; the latter in particular says (loc. cit.): Habetis igitur in una hostiâ duplex martyrium, pudoris et religionis: et virgo permansit et martyrium obtinuit (Behold therefore in the same victim a double martyrdom, one of modesty, the other of religion. She remained a virgin, and obtained the crown of martyrdom). Prudentius, therefore, may have drawn at least the substance of this episode from a trustworthy popular legend.
Agnes beatae virginis
Still another source of information, earlier than the Acts of her martyrdom, is the glorious hymn: Agnes beatae virginis, which, though probably not from the pen of St Ambrose (since the poet’s narrative clings more closely to the account of Damasus), still betrays a certain use of the text of St Ambrose, and was composed not long after the latter work. (See the text in Dreves, Aur. Ambrosius der Vater des Kirchengesanges, 135 Freiburg, 1893.)
The Acts of the Martyrdom of St Agnes
The Acts of the Martyrdom of St Agnes belong to a somewhat later period, and are met with in three recensions, two Greek and one Latin. The oldest of them is the shorter of the two Greeks texts, on which the Latin text was based, though it was at the same time quite freely enlarged. The longer Greek text is a translation of this Latin enlargement (Pio Franchi de Cavalieri, St. Agnese nella tradizione e nella legenda, in Römische Quartalschrift, Supplement X, Rome, 1899; cf. Acta SS., Jan. II, 350 sqq). The Latin, and consequently, the shorter Greek text date back to the first half of the fifth century, when St Maximus, Bishop of Turin (c. 450-470), evidently used the Latin Acts in a sermon (P.L., LVII, 643 sqq.). In these Acts the brothel episode is still further elaborated, and the virgin is decapitated after remaining untouched by the flames.
After her martyrdom
We do not know with certainty in which persecution the courageous virgin won the martyr’s crown. Formerly it was customary to assign her death to the persecution of Diocletian (c. 304), but arguments are now brought forward, based on the inscription of Damasus, to prove that it occurred during one of the third-century persecutions subsequent to that of Decius.
The body of the virgin martyr was placed in a separate sepulchre on the Via Nomentana, and around her tomb there grew up a larger catacomb that bore her name. The original slab which covered her remains, with the inscriptions Agne sanctissima, is probably the same one which is now preserved in the Museum at Naples.
During the reign of Constantine, through the efforts of his daughter Constantina, a basilica was erected over the grave of St Agnes, which was later entirely remodelled by Pope Honorius (625-638), and has since remained unaltered. In the apse is a mosaic showing the martyr amid flames, with a sword at her feet. A beautiful relief of the saint is found on a marble slab that dates from the fourth century and was originally a part of the altar of her church.
Since the Middle Ages St Agnes has been represented with a lamb, the symbol of her virginal innocence. On her feast two lambs are solemnly blessed, and from their wool are made the palliums sent by the Pope to archbishops.
J.P. KIRSCH (Catholic Encyclopedia)
Prayer to Saint Agnes
How sweet and yet how strong, O Agnes! is the love of Jesus, thy Spouse! It enters an innocent heart, and that heart becomes full of dauntless courage! Thus was it with thee. The world and its pleasures, persecution and its tortures–all were alike contemptible to thee. The pagan judge condemned thee to an insult, worse than a thousand deaths–and thou didst not know that the Angel of the Lord would defend thee!–how is it, that thou hadst no fear? It was because the love of Jesus filled thy heart. Fire was nothing; the sword was nothing; the very hell of men’s making, even that was nothing to thee! for thy love told thee that no human power could ever rob thee of thy Jesus; thou hadst His word for it, and thou knewest He would keep it.
Dear Child! innocent even in the capital of pagan corruption, and free of heart even amidst a slavish race, we read the image of our Emmanuel in thee. He is the Lamb; and thou art simple, like Jesus: He is the Lion of the Tribe of Juda; and, like Him, thou art invincible. Truly, these Christians, as the pagans said, are a race of beings come from heaven to people this earth! A family that has Martyrs, and heroes, and heroines, like thee, brave Saint!–that has young virgins, filled like its venerable Pontiffs and veteran soldiers, with the fire of heaven, and burning with ambition to leave a world they have edified with their virtues–is God’s own people, and it never can be extinct. Its Martyrs are to us the representation of the divine virtues of our Lord Jesus Christ. By nature, they were as weak as we; they had a disadvantage, which we have not–they had to live in the very thick of paganism, and paganism had corrupted the whole earth; and notwithstanding all this, they were courageous and chaste.
Have pity on us and help us, O thou, one of the brightest of these great Saints! The love of Jesus is weak in our hearts. We are affected, and shed tears at the recital of thy heroic conduct; but we are cowards in the battle we ourselves have to fight against the world and our passions. The habitual seeking after ease and comfort has fastened upon us a certain effeminacy; we are ever throwing away our interest upon trifles; how can we have earnestness and courage for our duties? Sanctity! we cannot understand it; and when we hear or read of it, we gravely say, that the Saints did very strange things, and were indiscreet, and were carried away by exagerated notions! What must we think on this thy feast, of thy contempt for the world and all its pleasures, of thy heavenly enthusiasm, of thy eagerness to go to thy Jesus by suffering? Thou wast a Christian, Agnes! Are we, too, Christians? Oh! pray for us that we may love like Christians, that is, with a generous and active love, with a love which can feel indignant when asked to have less detachment from all that is not our God. Pray for us, that our piety may be that of the Gospel, and not the fashionable piety which pleases the world, and makes us pleased with ourselves. There are some brave hearts who follow thy example; but they are few; increase their number by their prayers, that so the Divine Lamb may be followed, whithersoever He goeth in heaven, by a countless number of Virgins and Martyrs.
Innocent Saint! we meet thee, each year, at the Crib of the Divine Babe, and we delight, on thy Feast, to think of the wonderful love there is between Jesus and His brave little Martyr. This Lamb is come to die for us, too, and invites us to Bethlehem; speak to Him for us; the intercession of a Saint who loved him as thou didst, can work wonders even for such sinners as we. Lead us to His sweet Virgin Mother. Thou didst imitate her virginal purity; ask her to give us one of those powerful prayers, which can cleanse even worse hearts than ours.
Pray also, O Agnes! for the holy Church, which is the Spouse of Jesus. It was she that gave thee to be His, and it is from her that we, also, have received our life and our light. Pray that she may be blessed with an ever-increasing number of faithful virgins. Protect Rome, the City which guards thy Relics, and loves thee so tenderly. Bless the Prelates of the Church, and obtain for them the meekness of the lamb, the firmness of the Rock, the zeal of the good Shepherd for his lost sheep. And lastly, O Spouse of Jesus! hear the prayers of all who invoke thee, and let thy charity for us, thy exiled brethren, learn from the Heart of Jesus the secret of growing more ardent as our world grows older. Amen.