As a child of twelve or thirteen years, Agnes suffered for her faith, in Rome, during the persecution of the emperor Diocletian, the last and fiercest of the persecutions of Christians by the imperial state. Intensely dedicated to Christ, her fifth century Acts tell that she refused arranged marriage, saying that she preferred even the death of the body to the end of her consecrated virginity. After rejecting the blandishments of her examiners, and withstanding the threats and torments of her executioner, she remained firm in her refusal to offer worship to the gods of the imperial state, and was executed by being pierced through the neck with a sword. Venerated as a martyr from shortly after her death, early Church Fathers, including Ambrose, Jerome and Prudentius, praised her courage and chastity and remarked upon her name, which means “pure” in Greek and “lamb” in Latin.
In his treatise On Virginity, Ambrose of Milan wrote
“Is this a new kind of martyrdom? The girl was too young to be punished, yet old enough to wear a martyr’s crown; too young for the contest, but mature enough to gain victory. Her tender years put her at a disadvantage, but she won the trial of virtue. If she had been a bride, she could not have hastened to her wedding night as much as she, a virgin, went with joyful steps to the place of her execution, her head adorned with Christ himself rather than plaits, with a garland woven of virtues instead of flowers.”
Pilgrims still visit Agnes’ tomb and the catacomb surrounding it, beneath the basilica of her name on the Via Nomentana in Rome that Pope Honorius the First (625-638 ) built in her honor to replace an older shrine erected by the daughter or granddaughter of the emperor Constantine about 350. On her feast day at the basilica, two lambs are blessed, whose wool is woven into a scarf called the pallium, with which the Pope invests archbishops. Pope Gregory the Great sent such a pallium in 601 to Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. A representation of the pallium appears on the coat of arms of Archbishops of Canterbury to this day.
Agnes was commemorated from ancient times in England (probably from the time of the Augustinian mission to Kent), and her feast day is included in the Calendar of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, whence it has entered the sanctoral calendars of most of the Anglican Churches.
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
Almighty and everlasting God, you choose those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of your youthful martyr Agnes, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Agnes, Virgin and Martyr at Rome, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
The icon is from a fresco by Ambrogio Borgognone (1495).