Saint Agnes of Rome, Virgin and Martyr

Statue of St. Agnes in the Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls, Rome. (Photo © Scott P. Richert)
A statue of Saint Agnes in the Basilica di Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura (Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls), Rome, Italy. Scott P. Richert

One of the most beloved of female saints, Saint Agnes is renowned for her virginity and for keeping her faith under torture. A girl of only 12 or 13 at the time of her death, Saint Agnes is one of eight female saints commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass (the First Eucharistic Prayer).

Quick Facts

  • Feast Day: January 21
  • Type of Feast: Memorial
  • Readings: Hebrews 5:1-10; Psalm 110:1-4; Mark 2:18-22
  • Symbols: lamb, martyr's palm, martyr's crown, dove with a ring in its beak
  • Patron of: chastity, crops, engaged couples, gardeners, Girl Scouts, rape victims, virgins, young girls, the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Agnes, Diocese of Rockville Centre
  • Canonization: by acclamation, very soon after her death; commemorated in the Canon of the Mass (the First Eucharistic Prayer)
  • Prayers: The Litany of the Saints

The Life of Saint Agnes of Rome

Little is known for certain about the life of Saint Agnes. The years usually given for her birth and death are 291 and 304, as longstanding tradition places her martyrdom during the persecution of Diocletian (c. 304). An inscription by Pope Saint Damasus I (c. 304-384; elected pope in 366) at the foot of the stairs leading to the ancient Basilica di Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura (Basilica of St. Agnes Outside the Walls) in Rome, however, seems to indicate that Agnes was martyred in one of the persecutions in the second half of the third century. The date of her martyrdom, January 21, was universally acclaimed; her feast is found on that date in the earliest sacramentaries, or liturgical books, from the fourth century, and has been continuously celebrated on that date.

The only other detail to which universal testimony is offered is the young age of Saint Agnes at the time of her death. Saint Ambrose of Milan places her age at 12; his student, Saint Augustine of Hippo, at 13.

The Legend of Saint Agnes of Rome

Every other detail of Saint Agnes's life lies in the realm of legend—likely correct, but unable to be verified. She is said to have been born into a Christian family of Roman nobility, and to have voluntarily declared her Christian faith during a persecution. Saint Ambrose claims that her virginity was endangered and that she, therefore, suffered a double martyrdom: the first of modesty, the second of faith. This testimony, which adds to Pope Saint Damasus' account of Agnes's purity, may be the source of many details offered by later writers. Damasus claimed that she suffered martyrdom by fire, for proclaiming herself a Christian, and that she had been stripped naked for the burning, but preserved her modesty by covering herself with her long hair. Most statues and images of Saint Agnes depict her with very long hair curled and placed upon her head.

Later versions of Saint Agnes's legend say that her tormentors attempted to rape her or took her to a brothel to defile her, but that her virginity remained intact when her hair grew to cover her body or the would-be rapists were struck blind. Despite Pope Damasus' account of her martyrdom by fire, later authors say that the wood refused to burn and that she was therefore put to death by beheading or by stabbing through the throat.

Saint Agnes Today

The Basilica di Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura was built during the reign of Constantine (306-37) over the top of the catacombs in which Saint Agnes was entombed after her martyrdom. (The catacombs are open to the public and are entered through the basilica.) A mosaic in the apse of the basilica, dating from the renovation of the church under Pope Honorius (625-38), combines Pope Damasus' testimony with that of later legend, by showing Saint Agnes surrounded by flame, with a sword lying at her feet.

With the exception of her skull, which has been placed in a chapel in the 17th-century Sant'Agnese in Agone, on the Piazza Navona in Rome, Saint Agnes's bones are preserved under the high altar of the Basilica di Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura. The lamb has long been a symbol of Saint Agnes, because it signifies purity, and every year on her feast day, two lambs are blessed at the basilica. The wool from the lambs is used to create palliums, the distinctive vestment given by the pope to each archbishop.

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Your Citation
Richert, Scott P. "Saint Agnes of Rome, Virgin and Martyr." Learn Religions, Sep. 10, 2021, Richert, Scott P. (2021, September 10). Saint Agnes of Rome, Virgin and Martyr. Retrieved from Richert, Scott P. "Saint Agnes of Rome, Virgin and Martyr." Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).