“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 St. 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. 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.
Keats’ poem was the inspiration for the work of several of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, among them John Everett Millais 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 St. Agnes. Hers is one of the best known saint’s names in Catholicism. She is one of the early martyrs of the city of Rome, who are memorialized in the intercession prayer of the traditional “Roman” canon of the Mass (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 St. 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. Her body was buried in a catacomb outside the walls of Rome, on the via Nomentana. 4
????????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.)
More concretely, on her feast day two lambs are presented to the Pope during Mass. 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.
?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 other large basilican type buildings were also constructed in the outskirts of Rome, beyond the walls. These basilica-like buildings were intended not as churches, like St. John’s or St. Peter’s, but as covered cemeteries. 5
They were constructed near the graves of martyrs who were remembered by Roman Christians as having been important. One was built on the via Nomentana, near the grave of Agnes.
Above the nearby catacomb a smaller basilican church was also built on top of her grave in the 7th century. Called S. Agnese fuori le mura
(St. Agnes outside the walls) it still stands.
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 off the via Labicana, built adjoining the catacomb which contained the graves of the martyrs Marcellinus and Peter.6
Her granddaughter, Constantine’s daughter Constantina, built her mausoleum next to the cemetery basilica of Agnes (coemeterium Agnetis
It still stands next to the via Nomentana. Now called Sta. Constanza (and converted into a church), it preserves some of the earliest mosaic decorations which incorporate Christianized classical images.
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.
In the two small apses are mosaics depicting the Tradito Legis
and Christ as Pantocrator
. The nearby cemetery basilica of St. 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.
1. Published in 1819. The full text can be read at http://www.bartleby.com/126/39.html
2. For the Pre-Raphaelites see, http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/prb/1.html
3. The text of Eucharistic Prayer #1 can be accessed at http://old.usccb.org/romanmissal/samples-priest-prayer1.shtml
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.