January 2010 - St. Agnes


Holy Martyr Agnes of Rome (~304) January 21

Agnes, the daughter of a noble Roman pagan family who had become a Christian, was martyred at the age of twelve or thirteen when she openly declared her belief in Jesus Christ. Her name is in the Roman Calendar of Saints composed in 354 AD and her feast is assigned to January 21, on which all accounts of her death agree. Agnes was martyred in 304, during the Roman persecution of Christians. According to very early accounts, her enraged persecutors attempted to burn Agnes, and when this failed, they decapitated her.

Testimony to her courageous witness was given in early accounts. An account of her martyrdom was written by Saint Ambrose (340-387) in "De Virginibus", and Pope Damasus (ca. 304-384) extolled the heroism and virtue of the young girl, reportedly telling in a poem how she bravely faced fire, concerned only that her body be covered by her long hair. She gave up her life serenely and with prayers on her lips. Some Christians gathered her relics and placed them in a tomb where a magnificent church was later built. Saint Agnes' holy relics remain a source of healing to this day.

The Pope also wrote an inscription to her on a marble slab, which can still be seen at the foot of the stairs leading to the sepulcher in the church built over her grave during the reign of Constantine (ca 275-337). The church built over her tomb in the 4th Century, Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura ("Saint Agnes outside the walls), still stands today. A mosaic in the apse of the church shows the young saint as a Byzantine empress, amid flames with a sword at her feet.

Since the early middle-ages, Saint Agnes is usually depicted holding a lamb as a symbol of her purity.  At least since the 9th Century, each year on the Feast of Saint Agnes, two lambs are solemnly blessed at the church of Saint Agnes. From the wool of these lambs ware made the stoles given to archbishops as a sign of their pastoral office.


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