Saint Agnes, Virgin Martyr (Died 254 or 304): The Iconography

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. 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.

Narrative Images

A stained-glass window in Alsace presents the whole story, though the image online is not detailed enough for one to make out the individual episodes.

As for the saint's martyrdom, different versions give different reasons for the failure of the fire to consume her. Ryan's modern translation, using Graesse's Latin text, says the fire "divided and burned up the hostile crowd on either side, leaving the maiden unscathed." This is immediately followed by the execution with the sword.1 Most of the
images I have found rely instead on this version in Ryan. 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.

But in Caxton's text of the Golden Legend
and in the Vita reprinted by the Bollandists2, after the fire divides Agnes says a prayer of thanksgiving, and thereupon "the fire lost all his heat, and quenched it" (Vita: omnis ignis extinctus est, ut nec tepor quidem incendii remaneret). 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.

Portraits

Early and Eastern images portray Agnes without attributes (example), but as early as the sixth century she is portrayed with a lamb (example), which 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 (cached). In the panel at left, for example, the scriptural meaning of agnus may explain the lamb's feeding on the lower leaves of the palm branch, the emblem of her martyrdom. Some portraits also give the lamb a halo (example) to emphasize its role as a symbol of Christ.

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 one portrait, the whole martyrdom episode is added in a small area in the lower left of the canvas.

Finally, her portraits sometimes add an open book, as at left.

Feast day: January 21

At left, Altarpiece panel with St. Agnes - Quentin Massys

Other images:


15th century portrait

Among other saints:
With St. Pudentiana in a 9th century mosaic
Master of the St. Bartholomew Altar: Sts. Agnes,
                  Bartholomew, CeciliaThe Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece
St. Agnes santo in Burgos Cathedral
Her statue in the Colonnade at St. Peter's, Rome
In a 1495-1501 Crucifixion Triptych
Hagiography:
    Golden Legend #24: html or pdf
    Section from On Virgins by Ambrose of Milan

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1William Granger Ryan, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), xiii and 103.
2"Vita Sancti Agnetis, auctore S. Ambrosio," Acta Sanctorum: Januarii Tomus II (Antwerp: John van Meurs, 1643), 351-353.