Saint Agnes

From Academic Kids

For another saint of the same name, see Saint Agnes of Bohemia.
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Saint Agnes is a virgin martyr celebrated annually by Christians with a feast on January 21.

Saint Agnes is a virgin martyr and saint of the Roman Catholic Church and its Eastern Rite. She is also acknowledged in the Church of England and its Anglican Communion as well as in Eastern Orthodoxy. She is the patron saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape victims and virgins.

Also known as Saint Agnes of Rome and Saint Ines, she is celebrated each year with the Feast of Saint Agnes on January 21. Hundreds of churches are named in honor of Saint Agnes; two major well-known churches are dedicated to her. She is depicted in art with a lamb as her name is derived from the Latin word agnus which means lamb.



The legend of Saint Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility born c. 291 and raised in a Christian family, She suffered martyrdom at age thirteen during the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Diocletian, on January 21 304.

The prefect Sempronius wished her to marry his son, and on her refusal condemned her to death. Roman law did not permit the execution of virgins, so he ordered her to be raped beforehand, but her honour was miraculously preserved. When led out to die she was tied to a stake, but the bundle of wood would not burn, whereupon the officer in charge of the troops drew his sword and struck off her head.

Saint Agnes is the patron saint of young girls; folk custom called for them to practice rituals on Saint Agnes' Eve (20th-21st January) with a view to discovering their future husbands. This superstition has been immortalised in John Keats's poem, "The Eve of Saint Agnes." She is represented in art as holding a palm-branch in her hand and a lamb at her feet or in her arms.

Basilica di Sant'Agnese fuori le mura

Saint Agnes's bones rest in the church entitled to her outside the old walls of Rome (hence, Sant'Agnese fuori le mura, "Saint Agnes outside the walls" - on the Via Nomentana).

The current church (properly a basilica), as rebuilt by Honorius in the mid-7th century, stands over a 4th century catacomb (which is one of the most important cemeterial complexes in Rome, with over 10 kilometres (6 miles) of corridors, only a couple of which are accessible). In the fourth century the soft rock was hollowed out around Saint Agnes's tomb to create a gathering space, probably for her family to observe the anniversary of her death. The visits of her family and friends spread early to others in Rome, and the site became a place of pilgrimage. By 340, Costanza, daughter of emperor Constantine, enlarged the underground area and built a large private mausoleum over it which is now known as the "mausoleo di Santa Costanza" (she was called saint, even though she was not one officially), while the church of Saint Agnes was then built aside. The floor level of the 7th century church is at the level of the catacomb floor, and the public street entrances are at the level of the 2nd floor gallery.

At Sant'Agnese fuori le mura, on the saint festival (21st of January), two lambs are specially blessed by the pope after a pontifical high Mass, and their wool is later woven into pallia, ceremonial neck-stoles sent by the popes to newly-elevated Metropolitan-archbishops to symbolise their union with the papacy. The church is ruled by a French traditionalist order.

A popular local legend says that every lord mayor of Rome secretly comes to pray to this church, on the third night after his election; effectively, there are not many proofs that new "sindaci" really do so.

The current Cardinal Priest of the Title of Santa Agnese fuori le mura is Camillo Cardinal Ruini.

Church of Saint Agnes in Agone

A later church, Sant'Agnese in Agone, was built after 1652 on the site of her martyrdom in the Circus of Domitian, now the Piazza Navona in Rome, by the important Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. Despite a frequent mistake and the curious assonance, the name of this church is not related at all with the agony of the martyr: in agone was the ancient name of piazza Navona ("piazza in agone"), and meant instead (from Greek) "in the site of the competitions", because piazza Navona was an ancient stadium on the Greek model (with one flat end) for footraces. From "in agone", the popular use and pronunciation changed the name into "Navona", but other roads around kept the original name (like the Corsia Agonale, a short road that connects with the Palazzo Madama, Italian Senate), as the church did.

Current Cardinal Deacon of the Title of Santa Agnese in Agone is Lorenzo Cardinal Antonetti.

St Agnes' fountain

In the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas, the peasant lived "right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain".fr:Sainte Agns de:Agnes von Rom sv:Agnes (helgon) pl:Święta Agnieszka


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