St. Agnes is one of the most famous early Christian virgin martyrs, and is mentioned in one of the Eucharistic prayers of the Mass. She is patron saint of those seeking chastity and purity because of the legend around her martyrdom.
The story is told that Agnes was a stunningly beautiful girl of 13 who lived in Rome when the Emperor Diocletian began violently persecuting Christians in 303. Young nobles asked for her hand, but she declared herself the bride of Christ. Rebuffed, the young men formally accused her of being a Christian, and she was arrested and brought to trial.
The judge first began to entice her to deny her faith; she flatly refused. He soon turned to threats, and when they had no effect, he had instruments of torture brought forth. Agnes only grew in joy.
The judge knew she valued her purity above all, and threatened to expose her in a house of prostitution, that anyone in the city could come to defile her. “You may stain your sword with my blood,” she said, “but you will never be able to profane my body, which is consecrated to Christ.” The men who approached her in the brothel were awed by her holiness and left her alone.
Her suitors were by now enraged at her stubbornness, and they enticed the judge to order her beheaded. It is said that she went to the place of her execution as joyfully as if she were headed to her wedding.
This legend cannot be proven true, and is likely full of elaboration. Based on archeological evidence, however, it is true that a young girl of 13, a virgin named Agnes, was martyred in Rome and honored for her sacrifice. A church was built over her tomb, and her relics venerated.
Agnes is often represented with a lamb because the Latin word for lamb, agnus, resembles her name. Additionally, some traditions say that she was killed by being stabbed in the throat—the same way in which lambs are slaughtered.
On this date every year, two white lambs are blessed in the church in Rome that is dedicated to her. The lambs are cared for until it is time for their shearing, and their wool is woven into pallia, small round collars. The pallia are laid upon the altar above the tomb of St. Peter and then sent to new archbishops around the world as a symbol of their authority and union with the pope. See more about this tradition in this video of Pope Francis blessing the lambs in 2014.
St. Agnes is represented in this mural from the walls of the Basilica shown above, as well as in this drawing in the Snite Museum of Art collection by Luigi Gregori, the artist who decorated the Basilica. Her relics also rest in the reliquary chapel there.
St. Agnes, you were the courageous young girl who placed purity and faithfulness over death, pray for us!
Luigi Gregori (Italian, 1819-1896), Saint Agnes, mid-19th century, chalk on paper. Snite Museum of Art: Gift of the Artist, AA2009.056.275.