Saint Agnes, Virgin and Martyr, pray for us| National Catholic Registry

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Agnes is one of those seven women (along with Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy et al.) mentioned in the first eucharistic prayer. All seven were martyrs.

We met St. Lucy last month. We will meet Sainte Agathe in two weeks.

Saint Agnes was a contemporary of Saint Lucy—both lived in the late third and early fourth centuries. Saint Lucia was martyred in Sicily. Saint Agnes was killed in Rome around 304 AD.

As noted earlier, while the Church would be free and legal within a decade, it sometimes gets darker before dawn. The persecution of Diocletian took place from 303 to 311. It was particularly intense and relatively widespread in the Empire. Although Diocletian himself abdicated the imperial throne in 305, his policy lasted for some time and finally came to a decisive end only with Constantine the Great’s Edict of Milan in 313, which legalized the Christianity.

St. Agnes was around 12 or 13 when she was killed. Tradition has it that she came from a noble Roman family.

The age of 12 or 13 was already the time of puberty, and with shorter lifespans a girl of that age – especially a pretty girl coming from money – would have had suitors. When she refused them because she had dedicated her chastity to Christ, at least one of the abandoned boys turned over Agnes’ name to Roman authorities, suspecting her of being a Christian.

In Rome, marriage depended on the exchange of consent, so from this angle, Agnes had rights. But the law is one thing, the culture another, and in Roman culture a girl should have sought a suitable marriage and the only reason she could have turned down so many prospects was her association with this strange anti-sex cult called Christianity.

So, after being denounced, the Roman prefect Sempronius ordered that Agnes be stripped naked and dragged to a brothel through the streets of Rome. Tradition has it that, while she was praying, her hair grew to cover her nudity. Another tradition holds that the men who attempted to rape her along the way were struck blind. Agnes was therefore put on trial, Sempronius recused himself. Sentenced to death, she was to be burned at the stake – except the wood wouldn’t burn. The leader of the soldiers then took a sword and, depending on the account, either beheaded her or stabbed her in the throat, causing her death. She was buried near the Via Nomentana.

The cult of many martyrs began during the persecution of Diocletian and we know from St. Ambrose’s own account that Agnes was venerated already in her time, that is, the second half of the 4th century.

Fri. Tomás Morales notes in his Life of Saints, Semblanzas de testigos de Cristo, that the etymology of Agnes’ name indicates two key characteristics of her life. agne (Ἁγνή) in Greek means “pure” or “holy”. Agnus in Latin means “lamb” (as in Agnus Dei, “Lamb of God”). Thus her name already augured for her life: purity consecrated to holiness for which she would be immolated, like a pure and sacrificial lamb.

Saint Agnes had great devotion to Our Lady. As Father Morales notes, Saint Athanasius wrote that Agnes’ heart was on fire at the contemplation of her “for whom virginity began to exist in the world.” Saint Ambrose speaks of Agnes as having entrusted herself to the Immaculate Heart of Mary “the Mistress of Virginity… who was not only a virgin but who ‘infects’ with virginity all those who approach her”.

The countercultural witness to virginity and sexual chastity is clearly nothing new. It was as groundbreaking in Agnes’ time in the declining Roman Empire as it is in ours. As in ours, adherence to Catholic sexual morality put her at odds with those who controlled the levers of cultural, social, and political power. Shouldn’t we encourage young people — especially young women — to consider what value virginity held that girls their own age like Lucy, Agnes and Agatha gave their lives for it?

It was not a “pelvic problem”. Agnès committed herself to virginity out of love. Despite contemporary protests that “love is love,” modernity cannot understand that love measures and normalizes sexuality, not the other way around.

Domenico Zampieri (1581-1641), Baroque painter from Bologna,captures all of these attributes in its depiction of Saint Agnes. Zampieri is generally known as “Domenichino”, a diminutive of his given name due to its brevity. The painting dates from around 1620.

Saint Agnes is, of course, the central figure. She is represented in prayer because, after all, virginity does not exist for itself but as an expression of closeness and availability to God. The richness of Saint Agnes’ clothing indicates her well-to-do social position.

Chubby cherubs – a common feature of Baroque art – frequent Sainte-Agnès. One wears a golden crown held above her head, indicating the crowns of virginity and martyrdom that Agnes won.

(In his youth, Saint Maximilian Kolbe recounted having had a vision of the Blessed Virgin who offered him a white crown and a red crown, the first of virginity, the second of martyrdom. She asked him which he would choose. He said that he wanted both The consecrated cleric died a martyr in the Auschwitz famine bunker, offering his life out of love as a replacement for another prisoner sentenced to death).

A second cherub takes care of a sheep. The sheep is a common symbol or “attribute” of Saint Agnes, for the etymological reasons for her name given above. An “attribute” in Christian iconography or religious art is a symbol associated with a particular saint that tells the discerning viewer who is depicted in a painting, e.g., St. Peter will usually carry keys (“the keys of the Kingdom” given to him by Christ) and to Saint Paul a sword, the instrument of his martyrdom.

To the right of Agnès, on the column, is a bas-relief with a figure carrying an axe. A commentator suggests that this is a depiction of a sacrifice scene, pointing to Agnes’ own sacrifice, a pure lamb following the Lamb of God. And while scenes from classical Rome and Greece were frequent in Renaissance and later Baroque art – and certainly not out of time (“anachronistic”) for Agnes – classical elements can also indicate Agnes’ rejection of the values ​​of this pagan world.


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