Some things about St. Agnes

Today is the feast of St. Agnes, to whom I am particularly indebted for reasons many of you can guess. 

Many saints have their feast day on their dies natalis, their "birthday into heaven".  The day St. Agnes was martyred was recorded in the register of the ancient depositio martyrum as 21 January.

St. Agnes was slain probably during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian in 304. Some say she died during the time of the Emperor Valerian (+260).

The little girl was buried by her parents in praediolo suo, on their property along the Via Nomentana where there was already a cemetery. This cemetery expanded rapidly after that, because many wanted to be buried near the grave of the famous martyr. The ancient cemetery grew in stages near the Basilica which Constantina, daughter of Constantine, and Fausta began over her tomb from 337-350 .

There is an acrostic inscription from that time in verses about the dedication of the temple to Agnes:

Constantina deum venerans Christoque dicata
Omnibus impensis devota mente paratis
Numine divino multum Christoque iuvante
Sacravit templum victricis virginis Agnes

You get the idea.

The Basilica of St. Agnes was reconstructed towards the end of the 5th c. by Pope Symmachus (+514). Honorius I (+638) rebuilt it as a basilica with three naves, adding a wonderful fresco of Agnes. It was worked on again in the 16th c. by St. Pius V and in the 19th by Bl. Pope Pius IX. Excavations in 1901 uncovered the silver sarcophagus made by Pius V for St. Agnes together with St. Emerentiana. It contained the headless body of a young girl.  Zadock gave us a photo of the miraclous protection of Bl. Pius IX when once at the Basilica there was a near disastrous cave-in/collapse and no one was injured.

Agnes’s body is in her tomb on the Via Nomentana, but her skull is now at the place of her supposed martyrdom at the Piazza Navona in Rome’s heart. It is a fitting place to venerate a saint so much in the heart of the Roman people even today. It is not usual for people to name their children Agnes in honor of this great virgin martyr, whose name is pronounced in the Roman Canon.

The skull was bequeathed to that church at the Piazza by Pope Leo XIII who took it from the treasury of the Sancta Sanctorum.

The Piazza itself was in ancient times the Stadium of Domitian (+96) a place of terror and blood for early Christians, far more than the Coloseum ever was. The Piazza is thus called also the "Circo Agonale" and the name of the saint’s church Sant’Agnese in Agone. "Navona" is a corruption of "Agonale", from Greek agon referring to the athletic contests of the ancient world. St. Paul used the athlete’s struggle as an image of the Christian life of suffering, perseverance, and final victory even through the shedding of blood. Early Christian tombs often have wavy lines carved im the front, representing an iron instrument called a stirgil, used by athletes to scrape dirt and oil from the bodies after contests. Victory palm branches are still used in the iconography of saints, as well as wreathes of laurels.

We know about St. Agnes from St. Jerome, and especially St. Augustine’s Sermons 273, 286 and 354. St. Ambrose wrote a stunning hymn about Agnes and also speaks of her in de virginibus 1,2,5-9 written in 377.  Prudentius also wrote a hymn, 14 of the Peristephanon, written in 405. The hymn by Ambrose, one of four in honor of roman martyrs (along with Peter and Paul. John the Evangelist, and Lawrence) is used now in the Roman Church for Lauds and Vespers of her feast.  It is highly classical. 

    Agnes beatæ virginis
    natalis est, quo spiritum
    cælo refudit debitum
    pio sacrata sanguine.

    Matura martyrio fuit
    matura nondum nuptiis;
    prodire quis nuptum putet,
    sic læta vultu ducitur.

    Aras nefandi numinis
    adolere tædis cogitur;
    respondet: «Haud tales faces
    sumpsere Christi virgines.

    Hic ignis exstinguit fidem,
    hæc flamma lumen eripit;
    hic, hic ferite, ut profluo
    cruore restinguam focos».

    Percussa quam pompam tulit!
    Nam veste se totam tegens,
    terram genu flexo petit
    lapsu verecundo cadens.

    Iesu, tibi sit gloria,
    qui natus es de Virgine,
    cum Patre et almo Spiritu,
    in sempiterna sæcula.

The Ambrosian account of Agnes’s death differs somewhat from others. For Ambrose, Agnes died from beheading. Prudentius has her first exposed to shame in a brothel and then beheaded.

Here is the text of the hymn from the Liturgia horarum for the "Office of Readings" with a brutally literal translation.

Igne divini radians amoris
corporis sexum superavit Agnes,
et super carnem potuere carnis
claustra pudicae.

Shining with the fire of divine love
Agnes overcame the gender of her body,
and the undefiled enclosures of the flesh
prevailed over flesh.

Spiritum celsae capiunt cohortes
candidum, caeli super astra tollunt;
iungitur Sponsi thalamis pudica
sponsa beatis.

The heavenly host took up her brilliant white spirit,
and the heavens lifted it above the stars;
the chaste bride is united to the
blessed bride chambers of the Spouse.

Virgo, nunc nostrae miserere sortis
et, tuum quisquis celebrat tropaeum,
impetret sibi veniam reatus
atque salutem.

O virgin, now have pity on our lot,
and, whoever celebrates your victory day,
let him earnestly pray for forgiveness of guilt
and salvation for himself.

Redde pacatum populo precanti
principem caeli dominumque terrae
donet ut pacem pius et quietae
tempora vitae.

Give back to this praying people
the Prince of heaven and Lord of the earth,
that he, merciful, may grant us peace
and times of tranquil living.

Laudibus mitem celebremus Agnum,
casta quem sponsum sibi legit Agnes,
astra qui caeli moderatur atque
cuncta gubernat. Amen.

Let us celebrate with praises the gentle Lamb,
whom chaste Agnes binds to herself as Spouse,
he who governs the stars of heaven
and guides all things. Amen.

We can note a couple things from this prayer. First, the reference to fire probably a description of Agnes’s death related in a metrical panegyric of Pope Damasus about how Agnes endured martyrdom by fire. On the other hand, St. Ambrose, when speaking of her death, speaks of martyrdom by the sword.

Pope St. Damasus composed a panegyric, an elogia, inscribed in gorgeous letters on marble (designed and executed by Dionysius Philocalus) in honor of Roman saints, including Agnes.  This was the period when the Roman shifted from Greek to Latin.  Damasus was also trying to make a social statement with these great inscriptions, set up at various places about the City.   The panegyic of St. Agnes was placed in the cemetery near the saint’s tomb, but through the ages it was lost. Amazingly, it was at last rediscovered in 1728 inside the basilica, whole and complete: it had been used upside down, fortunately as a paving stone!

Now it is affixed to the wall in the corridor descending to the narthex. Its discovery was a find of vast importance (thanks to Zadok for the photo of the inscription).


It is told that one day the holy parents recounted that Agnes, when the trumpet had sounded its sad tunes, suddenly left the lap of her nurse while still a little girl and willingly trod upon the rage and the threats of the cruel tyrant. Though he desired to burn the noble body in the flames, with her little forces she overcame immense fear and, gave her loosened hair to cover her naked limbs, lest mortal eye might see the temple of the Lord. O one worthy of my veneration, holy glory of modesty, I pray you, O illustrious martyr, deign to give ear to the prayers of Damasus.

Damasus used the sources available. There were the stories told by her parents, the 4th edict of Diocletian against Christians in 304 (lugubres cantus tuba concrepuisset). Agnes did what she did of her own free will (sponte). Note the reference to the body as temple of God (1 Cor 3:16 and 2 Cor 6:16).

St. Agnes of Rome, has two churches in Rome.  Along with St. John the Baptist the only saint in the traditional Roman calendar not a member of the Holy Family, she has two feast days.  Since the reform of the calendar, who now has only one day, alas, though the Baptist still has two.

During excavations at the Basilica on the Via Nomentana in 1901 the silver sarcophagus made by St. Pius V for St. Agnes and St. Emerentiana was uncovered.

It was found to contain the headless body of a young girl.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Father,

    You’ll see that I’ve posted a photo of that Damascine inscription.

    God bless,


  2. Zadok: Thanks for that. Fascinating, no?

  3. dcs says:

    Along with St. John the Baptist the only saint in the traditional Roman calendar not a member of the Holy Family, she has two feast days.

    I guess you mean exactly two feast days? ;-)

    St. Peter’s Chair at Rome – January 18
    St. Peter’s Chair at Antioch – February 22
    SS. Peter and Paul – June 29
    St. Peter’s Chains – August 1

  4. Geoffrey says:

    What a beautiful hymn! Why aren’t these proper hymns for saints included in the English editions of the LOTH? Hmmm… perhaps I should be thankful ICEL ignored them, rather than butcher them also? ;-)

  5. Sid Cundiff says:

    St. Agnes Outside the Walls has fine catacombs with great inscriptions. The mosaic in the church’s apse is worth the trip alone. When I was there, to see her tomb one was obliged to take the tour of the catacombs. Still worth it.

  6. Jay says:

    Thanks for interesting and devotional post

  7. Pawel Pojawa says:


    Might caeli super astra tollunt be better translated as “lift it over the stars of the sky“?

  8. Andrew R. says:

    Apart from St Peter (and St Paul who still has two):

    St Francis — 4 Oct
    Stigmata of St Francis — 17 Sep

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