In Rome the passion of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr. Under Symphronius, the Prefect of the City, she was cast into the fire, but when the flames were extinguished through her prayers she was put to the sword. Blessed Jerome wrote of her, "Every nation praises the life of Agnes orally and in writing, especially in the churches. Despite her young age she defeated the tyrant, and by her martyrdom she vindicated the name of chastity." – Roman Martyrology for January 21
Agnes was a schoolgirl of 13 when the son of "the prefect of Rome" fell in love with her. But she claimed to be married already, to Christ, and when she refused to sacrifice to the idols she was stripped naked and condemned to life in a brothel, but God shielded her body by making her hair grow long and enveloping her in a light so bright that men could not approach. When the prefect's son tried to come to her he was caught and killed by a devil, but then resuscitated by Agnes herself. The prefect's lieutenant, Aspasius, tried to burn the saint but this attempt failed, so he stabbed her in the throat with a sword.
Early and Eastern images portray Agnes without attributes (example), and even as late as this 9th-century Roman mosaic she is pictured as simply a generic virgin martyr. But as early as the sixth century she begins to be portrayed with a lamb, as in the second picture at right. The lamb becomes the attribute most commonly used to identify her. This is because her name is so close to the Latin agnus, "lamb," which is additionally a reference to Christ, the Agnus Dei or "Lamb of God" of the Christian liturgy and John 1:29-31. To emphasize this symbolism some portraits even give the lamb a halo (example).
Besides the lamb and the palm branch, Agnes may be portrayed with the sword of her martyrdom (example) or standing on the flames that parted in her story (example). In the first picture on the right the whole martyrdom episode is added in a small area in the lower left of the canvas. Additionally, her portraits sometimes add an open book, as in the third picture at right. Usually in western images her hair is long and blond, as in the first and third pictures at right and this example.
Different versions of the saint's martyrdom give different reasons for the fire's failure to consume her. The Golden Legend says it "divided and burned up the hostile crowd on either side, leaving the maiden unscathed" (Ryan, 103). This is immediately followed by Aspasius killing her with the sword. Most of the images I have found rely on this version. One relief at the Duomo in Milan, for example, represents in a single scene the angry crowd, the consuming fire, and Aspasius driving his sword into young girl's throat.
However, there is a different sequence in the versions in Caxton and the Acta Sanctorum: After the fire divides, Agnes says a prayer of thanksgiving, and thereupon "the fire was entirely extinguished, such that not even the heat remained."1 Caxton says it was "quenched." Only then does Aspasius step forward and kill the girl. I have found the "quenching" only once, in a relief at Santa Inéz in Mexico City where two angels pour water onto the scene from Heaven.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-07-24, 2016-11-17.