January 21 – Agnes of Rome

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Agnes of Rome, martyr

A calendar of martyrs that dates from the mid-4th century includes Agnes’s name and the location of her grave near Via Nomentana, in Rome. A church built on this site in 350 commemorates her. She is thought to have been killed in the persecution under Diocletian (304), but other traditions bring the date forward to the time of Decian. All the sources agree that she was young, barely thirteen years old, and was already determined not to marry but to dedicate her life to Christ and the work of the church, when persecution broke out. She left home and offered herself for martyrdom. Resisting all threats (and various sources include various elaborations of fire, brothel, public shaming) she was put to death by the Roman practice of being stabbed in the throat.  Brutal and horrifying as all martyrdom stories are, Agnes’s death reminded the Christian community that the faith and autonomy of young women were not to be under-estimated.

Agnes’s choices were constrained, of course, compared, for example, to her brothers if she had any. Thirteen was not only part of childhood but also the age at which most Roman girls of good family were married. Christian resistance to the civic duty of marriage and children was a serious challenge to the Empire. The whole edifice of Imperial power, was built on slavey, the trade of people whose bodies were not their own. As Peter Brown commenting on the most recent scholarship affirms, Christianity argued for ‘freedom’ from the sexual assumptions of the Roman world (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/dec/19/rome-sex-freedom/). Agnes was part of that argument, and was nderstood by her community to be claiming freedom.

Ambrose of Milan reflected on Agnes as a model in a series of letters for his sister Manellia and other Christians who were thinking of dedicating their lives in community. The letters, collected as the treatise On Virgins, date from 377.   (https://librivox.org/concerning-virgins-by-saint-ambrose/)

Saint Agnes… is said to have borne witness at the age of twelve. Detestable cruelty, indeed, that did not spare such tender years! Yet all the greater the faith that found a witness in so young a child!

Was her little body really large enough to receive the sword’s thrust? She was hardly big enough to be struck, yet was great enough to overcome – and that at an age when little girls cannot bear a mother’s stern look and think a needle’s jab a mortal wound!

…Others wept, but not she. Many marvelled that she should be so spendthrift with a life hardly begun. All were amazed that one too young to manage her own life could be a witness to God. She would prove that God could give what people cannot – for what transcends nature must be from nature’s Author!

A hymn in her honour, Agnes beatae virginis, is also attributed to Ambrose of Milan. It praised her courage and purity, making the ancient link between virginity and purity of commitment to Christ, between idolatry and adultery. All the martyrs carried this link between faith and chastity for the community, but it is especially prominent in the way the women have been remembered.

Agnes is one of seven women and girls, all martyrs, whose names are remembered alongside Mary the mother of Jesus in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving of the Roman rite. The others are Cecilia, Felicity, Perpetua, Lucy, and Agatha.  Her connection to Rome is underlined in the blessing of two lambs on her feastday 21 January. When they are shorn at Easter time, the wool is used to weave the narrow shoulder bands of the pallium that is given by the Pope and worn by Catholic metropolitan archbishops as a symbol of their unity.

 Dr Katharine Massam