Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Excellent Women: St Agnes of Rome

Below we have the first in what will hopefully be a series of ‘Excellent Women’ for the blog. The selection is, at the moment, entirely based on personal whim but please comment if there is any lady you would particularly like to see...

For the first of our Excellent Women, where better to start than with my namesake, St Agnes of Rome. Keats’ poem The Eve of St Agnes is inspired by the superstition that a young woman who goes without her supper on St Agnes’ Eve will dream of her husband-to-be. In this case, it ends in a midnight elopement from a romantic fantasy of a medieval castle. However, nothing could be less fitting to the actual story of St Agnes.

Agnes was a young Roman girl, reputedly martyred during the persecution of Diocletian in 304AD. According to her epitaph by St Damasus, she declared herself a Christian after an imperial edict against the faith. Other traditions relate that she refused to marry the son of a Roman official or perform pagan sacrifices and so was condemned to death. But the Roman authorities had a problem here: Agnes was only about twelve or thirteen and still a virgin so it was illegal to kill her. Damasus describes her as “nutricis gremium subito liquisse puella”, that is, hastening to martyrdom from her nurse’s lap.

To remove this barrier to her execution, it was decided that she be stripped naked and sent to a brothel. But, as the men there prepared to rape her, they were suddenly struck blind and fell down as if they were dead. Her hair also grew to hide her body from the gaze of onlookers. Then, they attempted to burn her alive but the torches would not light. The hymn Agnes Beatae Virginis, sometimes attributed to St Ambrose, as well as using the usual word taeda to refer to a torch used in torture, uses fax, a Latin word which originally referred to a torch carried in procession before the bride but later came to mean both marriage and death. This reminds us that a girl of Agnes’ age would normally have been ready to marry, but instead she could expect martyrdom. She was finally killed by the sword, either beheaded or stabbed in the throat.

Eventually, the daughter of the emperor Constantine built a mausoleum over her grave which later became part of the church of Sant' Agnese fuori le mura. Here, two lambs are blessed on her feast day. These later provide the wool for the pallium sent by the Pope to a newly consecrated archbishop and which can still be seen on the arms of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

So, next January I will remember Agnes’ honesty and courage in facing torture and death for her faith and pray that, in some small way, I can emulate her sacrifice in my daily life.

Let us gain courage for our own battle by honouring the martyrdom of the glorious virgin Agnes. St. Agnes, vessel of honour, flower of unfading fragrance, beloved of the choirs of Angels, you are an example to the worth of virtue and chastity. O you who wear a Martyr's palm and a virgin's wreath, pray for us that, though unworthy of a special crown, we may have our names written in the list of Saints.

And then I shall have my dinner and go to bed to dream of nothing in particular.

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