Memorial of Saint Agnes

January 21st 2015

Master of the altar of Saint Bartholomew (active between 1470 and 1510 between Utrecht and Cologne), Mystic Marriage of Saint Agnes, 1500, oil on canvas, 41.2 x 31.2 cm, Nuremberg, German National Museum


The Roman liturgical calendar commemorates the holy virgin Agnes, whose antiquity of the cult in the Latin Church is attested by the presence of her name in the Roman Canon ( 1st Eucharistic Prayers today), alongside those of other famous martyrs: Lucia, Cecilia, Agatha , Anastasia, Perpetua and Felicity. The word "Agnes", which is the Greek translation of the adjective "pure" or "caste", was used as a nickname quite possibly to symbolically reflect her qualities. She lived in a time when it was illegal to publicly profess the Christian faith. As for so many saints of the first centuries, there is little reliable information, however many biographical elements have emerged in the centuries following stories in the form of "passions".

Agnes was born in Rome in the third century of Christian parents. When she was just twelve, a persecution broke out and many were the faithful who gave way to defection. Agnes, who had decided to offer the Lord her virginity, was denounced as a Christian by the son of the prefect of Rome, who had fallen in love with her but was rejected. She was exposed naked at the Circus Agonale, near what is now Piazza Navona. A man who tried to approach her fell dead before being able to touch her and equally miraculously reaffirmed the intercession of the Saint. Thrown into a fire, which was extinguished by her prayers, she was then pierced in the throat with a sword, in the same way they used to kill lambs. As a result, in iconography she is often depicted with a sheep or a lamb, symbols of purity and sacrifice. The date of her death is not certain; some place it between 249 and 251 during the persecution ordered by Emperor Decius, others in 304 during the persecution of Diocletian.

In the beautiful painting by the anonymous German painter, we find some elements that emphasize her virtues. First, the little lamb, in the foreground, allows us to identify her without a doubt. The richness of her dress intends to show not so much any noble origins, but rather the nobility of her figure, obtained by the witness of faith and martyrdom. The ring that little Jesus is putting on the ring finger of her left hand symbolises the gift that she has given in her life to him, and why she has become worthy to become "bride" of the Lord. The red cloth that frames both the figures of the Virgin and the Saint, which looks like a throne, places the scene in God's world, where the red recalls the colour normally tied to the deity but also that of the bloodshed of the young martyr. The glimpse of the landscape with the beautiful church on the right, gives credence and relevance to young Agnes and to her testimony.