Friday, January 20, 2012

“The Eve of St. Agnes”: A Poet, Some Painters, a Roman Princess and a Saint, January 20-21

William Holman Hunt, The Escape of Madeline and Porphyro
English, 1848
Private Collection
“ST. AGNES’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold”

This is the opening stanza of “The Eve of St. Agnes” by the English Romantic poet, John Keats. The complete poem tells the tale of the elopement of a young girl and young man from her home.1 The poem begins with this evocation of a freezing January night and with references to the old superstition that on the night of January 20/21, if certain rules were fulfilled, a girl would dream of the man she would marry. The remainder of the poem tells a story (reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet) of a young man from an “enemy” family, who secretes himself in the girl’s room, spies on her as she prepares for bed and goes to sleep. After a time he wakes her and urges her to elope with him, which she does. Their escape is made easier because everyone in her family home had caroused late into the night and was in no condition to challenge them. 

John Everett Millais, The Eve of St. Agnes
English, 1863
Windsor, Royal Collection
Keats’ poem was the inspiration for the work of several of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, among them John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. The poem’s mélange of sub-textual sexuality, detailed observation of the natural world and romanticized Medievalism exactly matched the guiding philosophy of the Pre-Raphaelites. 2

However, all this is very far from the Catholic view of St. Agnes. Hers is one of the best known saint’s names in Catholicism. She is one of the early martyrs of the city of Rome, those who are memorialized in the intercession prayer of the traditional “Roman” canon of the Mass (Eucharistic Prayer #1), along with other female saints like Cecilia, Agatha, Felicity, Perpetua and Anastasia, as well as the early Popes and male martyrs like St. Lawrence.3   According to the traditional belief, she was a young teenage Christian girl, tortured for her refusal to sacrifice to the Roman gods and for her desire to remain a virgin because of her commitment to Christ. Eventually, she was murdered for her faith and her refusal to capitulate. Her body was buried in a catacomb outside the walls of Rome, on the via Nomentana. 4
Hieronymous Bosch,
St. Agnes with Donor,
Wing of Triptych of the Magi
Netherlandish, ca. 1510
Madrid, Prado Museum

Dominichino, St. Agnes
Italian, ca. 1620
Windsor, Royal Collection

Because of the close relationship between her name, “Agnes”, and the Latin word for lamb; “agnus”, her symbol has traditionally been a lamb. A popular saint in medieval and Renaissance art, she is easily identified by the proximity of the lamb (which, of course, is also a symbol for Christ, the Lamb of God.)

More concretely, on her feast day two lambs are presented to the Pope during Mass. When they are shorn, several months later, their wool is sent to the cloistered convent attached to the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. There it is woven into the strips of woolen cloth from which are made the pallia (symbolic collars) that are presented by the Pope to newly elevated archbishops.

In the 4th century, shortly after the issue of the Edict of Milan and contemporary with the construction of the major basilicas of St. John Lateran and St. Peter’s (the first purpose-built Christian churches) several extremely large basilican type buildings were constructed in the outskirts of Rome, beyond the walls.

These basilica-like buildings were intended not as churches, like St. John’s or St. Peter’s, but as covered cemeteries.   They were constructed near the graves of martyrs who were remembered by Roman Christians as having been important.  Excavations have found that their floors were literally paved with graves and their walls also bore stacked rows of sarcophagi.  One was built on the via Nomentana, near the grave of Agnes.
Plan showing the layout of the site off via Nomentana.
The Constantinian era cemetery basilica (parts of which still exist) is the largest structure.
The circular structure is S. Costanza, the still existing mausoleum of Constantine's daughter.
The small basilica at the right (down a flight of steps) is the 7th century church of S. Agnese fuori le mura, built over the catacomb in which Agnes was buried, and that still exists.

Interior, S. Agnese fuori le mura
Roman, 7th century

Above the nearby catacomb a smaller basilican church was also built on top of her grave in the 7th century. Called S. Agnese fuori le mura (St. Agnes outside-the-walls), it still stands.

One feature of these large basilican cemeteries was that they were often the locations at which wealthy Christians chose to build their own tombs. Helena, Constantine’s mother, built her tomb adjacent to the cemetery basilica which adjoined the catacomb containing the graves of the martyrs Marcellinus and Peter off the via Labicana.6

Her granddaughter, Constantine’s daughter Constantina, built her mausoleum next to the cemetery basilica of Agnes (coemeterium Agnetis).7   It still stands next to the via Nomentana, although the adjoining cemetery basilica is now in ruins. Now called Sta. Constanza (and converted into a church), it preserves some of the earliest mosaic decorations which incorporate Christianized classical images.

Exterior view of S. Costanza showing remains of the 4th century cemetery basilica walls
Roman, 4th century
The vaulting famously includes images of classical putti (what today we would call “cherubs”) cavorting amid entwining grape vines during a grape harvest, a possible Eucharistic reference.
Vault Mosaic Showing Putti Harvesting Grapes
Roman, 4th Century
Rome, Santa Costanza
In the two small apses are mosaics depicting the Tradito Legis and Christ as Pantocrator. The nearby cemetery basilica of St. Agnes is still partially standing as well.  
Traditio Legis Mosaic
Roman, 4th century
Rome, S. Costanza
Christ Pantocrator Mosaic
Roman, 4th century
Rome, S. Costanza
All this for a young, but tenacious, teenager who could neither be dissuaded nor bullied into abandoning her faith.

1. Published in 1819. The full text can be read at

2. For the Pre-Raphaelites see,

3. The text of Eucharistic Prayer #1 can be accessed at

4. Butler, Rev. Alban. Lives of the Saints, New York, Benziger Brothers, 1894, pp. 43-44.

5. Krautheimer, Richard. “Mensa-Coemeterium-Martyrium” in Studies in Early Christian, Medieval and Renaissance Art, New York, New York University Press, 1969, pages 35-58. and Rome, Profile of a City, 312-1308, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 24-25.  In ancient Rome (from pagan times onwards) no burials were allowed inside the walls.

6. Krautheimer, op cit.

7. Krautheimer, op cit.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Circumcision of Jesus

Fra Angelico, Circumcision of Jesus
Italian, 1451-1452
Florence, Museum of San Marco
Angelico's picture of the Circumcision leaves no doubt
about what's happening!
"When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb."
(Luke 2:21) Gospel for January 1, 2012, Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God

Before the revision of the calendar that followed Vatican II, January 1st was the feast of the Circumcision of the Lord.  This is still the text of the Gospel for January 1, even though the feast is now that of the Theotokos, the Holy Mother of God.

The event of the Circumcision makes manifest that Jesus is a real human being, a real little Jewish boy baby.  It marks him as a Jew according to the law of Moses.  It is also His first experience of human pain and the first shedding of His Blood. 

So, while the secular world celebrates the beginning of a new year, full of new possibilities and new hopes for the future, the Church also marks the beginning of something new -- by commemorating the first experience of human suffering by the Incarnate Word.