Friday, January 20, 2012

“The Eve of Saint Agnes”: A Poet, Some Painters, a Roman Princess and a Saint

William Holman Hunt, The Escape of Madeline and Porphyro
English, 1848
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery
“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 Saint 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. 

John Everett Millais, The Eve of Saint Agnes
English, 1863
Windsor, Royal Collection Trust

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. 

Arthur Hughes, The Eve of Saint Agnes
English, 1856
London, Tate Britain

Keats’ poem was the inspiration for the work of several of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, among them John Everett Millais, Arthur Hughes 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 Saint Agnes. 

So, Who Is Agnes?

Agnes has 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 (now 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 Saint 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. 

Procession of Female Martyrs
Byzantine, Second Half of 6th Century
Ravenna, Church of Sant' Appolinare Nuovo
Saint Agnes is easily identified on the far left because of the lamb associated with her.

Agnes Has a Lamb

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.)

Saints Agnes and Barbara
From the Livre d’images du Christ et les saincts
Flemish (Hainaut), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 96r

Saint Agnes, Stained Glass Window
Austrian, c. 1340-1350
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

Master of the Brussels Initials and Workshop, Saint Agnes
From the Hours of Charles the Noble, King of Navarre
French (Paris), c. 1405
Cleveland, Museum of Art
MS 1964.40, fol. 2

Donato de' Bardi, Right Wing From the Triptych of the Madonna and Child with Saints Philip and Agnes
Italian, c. 1425-1430
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saint Agnes
From a Book of Hours
French (Anjou), 1440
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 157, fol. 200v

Saint Agnes from February Calendar Page
From the Hours of Louis of Savoy
French (Savoy), c. 1445-1460
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9473, fol. 3v 

ean le Tavernier and Follower, Saint Agnes
From the Hours of Philip of Burgundy
Flemish (Oudenaarde), c. 1450-1460
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 2, fol. 275v

Anonymous, Geertruy Haeck Kneeling Before Saint Agnes
Dutch, c. 1465
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Adriaen van Wesel, Saint Agnes
Dutch, c. 1470-1480
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Neri di Bicci, Saints Agnes and Clare of Assisi
Italian, c. Mid-1470
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Hieronymous Bosch, Agneese de Gramme Protected by Saint Agnes
Right Wing of the Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi
Dutch, c. 1494
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Bernhard Strigel, Saint Agnes, Wing of a Triptych
German, c. 1510
Marburg, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte der Philipps-Universität Marburg

Master of the Saint Marein Triptych, Saint Agnes
German, c. 1510-1530
Detroit, Institute of Arts

Diego de Tiedra, Saint Agnes
Spanish, c. 1550
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bowl with Saint Agnes and Her Lamb
French (Limoges), 17th Century
Paris, Musée  du Louvre, Département  des Objets d'art du Moyen Age, de la Renaissance et des temps modernes

Dominichino, Saint Agnes
Italian, c. 1620
London, Royal Collection Trust, Kensington Palace

Vicente Carducho, Saint Agnes
Spanish, 1637
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

More concretely, on her feast day two lambs are presented to the Pope during Mass. For the occasion they are bedded down in a basket each and decorated with red flowers, a reminder that they are symbolic of a martyr saint.  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. 

The presentation of the lambs blessed by Pope Francis on the feast of Saint Agnes, Jan. 21, 2016. 
Credit: L'Osservatore Romano

Saint Agnes -- Buried Outside the Walls, But Never Out of Memory

Following her death at the hands of the executioners, the body of Agnes was buried in a catacomb outside the walls of Rome, on the via Nomentana. 4 

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 not intended 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 Santa 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 Sant' Agnese fuori le mura, built over the catacomb in which Agnes was buried, and that still exists.

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

Interior, Church of Sant' Agnese fuori le mura
Roman, 7th century

Church of Sant' Agnese fuori le mura, Floor level view
Roman, 7th century

Saint Agnes with Popes Symmachus and Honorius
Late Antique Apse Mosaic, 7th Century
Rome, Church of Saint'Agnese fuori le Mura

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 Santa Constanza (and converted into a church), it preserves some of the earliest mosaic decorations which incorporate Christianized classical images.

Exterior view of Santa 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, Church of Santa Costanza

Also decorating the vaults are images of birds, flowers, fruits and serving vessels.  Again these are open to Christian interpretations, or they may simply be a continuation of Roman decorative wall paintings and mosaics.

Vault Decoration
Roman, 4th Century
Rome, Church of Santa Costanza

In the two small apses are mosaics depicting the Tradito Legis and Christ as Pantocrator Giving the Keys to Saint Peter (Traditio Clavum).

Traditio Legis Mosaic
Roman, 4th century
Rome, Church of Santa Costanza

Traditio Clavum Mosaic
Roman, 4th century
Rome, Church of Santa Costanza

The nearby cemetery basilica of Saint Agnes is still partially standing as well.  

All this for a young, but tenacious, teenager who could neither be dissuaded nor bullied into abandoning her faith.

© M. Duffy, 2012, pictures updated and new material added 2023, restructured with updated and new images 2024.
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.

*  The basilica is a type of building we still have with us, though its purpose has been modified.  Originally, basilicas were all-purpose civil buildings (as opposed to temples).  They were basically plain structures on the outside, though they could be elaborate on the inside.  They followed a basic plan, with usually a straight entrance wall, straight side walls and a rounded end, called an apse.  They could serve various functions, often used as law courts, with the judges seated at the apsidal end.  In the German city of Trier the basilica that was used as a throne room by the Roman Emperors when Trier was the second capital of the Empire in the West still survives, converted to a church.  When Christians were able to build churches for the first time, the basilica offered a ready made plan that had no unwelcome associations with the temples of the pagan or even of the Jewish world.  And it had the Imperial backing of Constantine, who ordered the construction of the first two great basilican churches, Saint John Lateran and Saint Peter on Vatican hill.

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.