January 21: Agnes, Martyr at Rome, 304

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.


About this Commemoration

As a child of twelve years, Agnes suffered for her faith, in Rome, during the cruel persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. After rejecting blandishments and withstanding threats and tortures by her executioner, she remained firm in refusal to offer worship to the heathen gods, and was burned at the stake—or, according to another early tradition, was beheaded with the sword. The early Fathers of the Church praised her courage and chastity, and remarked upon her name, which means “pure” in Greek and “lamb” in Latin.

Pilgrims still visit Agnes’ tomb and the catacomb surrounding it,  beneath the basilica of her name on the Via Nomentana in Rome that Pope Honorius I (625–638) built in her honor to replace an older shrine erected by the Emperor Constantine. On her feast day at the basilica, two lambs are blessed, whose wool is woven into a scarf called the pallium, with which the Pope invests archbishops. Pope Gregory the Great sent such a pallium in 601 to Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. A representation of the pall appears on the coat of arms of Archbishops of Canterbury to this day.


i Almighty and everlasting God, who dost choose those whom the world deemeth powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of thy youthful martyr Agnes, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

ii Almighty and everlasting God, you choose those whom the world deems powerless to put the powerful to shame: Grant us so to cherish the memory of your youthful martyr Agnes, that we may share her pure and steadfast faith in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Song of Solomon 2:10–13

2 Corinthians 6:16–18

Matthew 18:1–6



Preface of  a Saint (3)

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.


We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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7 thoughts on “January 21: Agnes, Martyr at Rome, 304

  1. I like to print the pic & copy and give them to folks I know whose name is the same as the saint-of-the-day. Could you put a link on your page to go to a ‘printable version?’ As it stands for me, it is a ‘cut and paste’ operation’ twice, once for the copy and once for the pic. On the other hand, I love the daily reference and your background information on the saints. It is a wonderful resource for this Protestant-Episcopalian/Anglo-Catholic/Left-Wing-Christian. Thank you so much for your diligence!

    Skip Higgins on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, having recovered after Hurricane Katrina…..

  2. Agnes was once thought to have perished in the persecutions of Diocletian in 304, but recent research has suggested she may have been martyred as early as 250. We have accounts of Agnes’ martyrdom written by Damascus of Rome (c. 304-84), Ambrose of Milan (339-97), and Prudentius (348-c. 410). All were written within a century of the traditional date of her death, but, unfortunately, apart from the saint’s age and gender, the three agree on little else.
    The pallium was originally a rectangular cloak, worn by Roman men, which was folded and carried over the shoulders when not needed for warmth. An abbreviated version, more like a scarf than a cloak, was adopted by the Roman emperors and other high officials as a badge of office. By the 4th century, many bishops were wearing pallia as part of their regalia. The Roman pontiffs began sending pallia to selected bishops as a mark of special esteem, and by the 9th century it had become the distinctive insignia of a metropolitan bishop.
    The sketchy documentation of Agnes’ life makes it difficult to explain why she is honored above other martyrs of her era and exactly how she is to be emulated. Her connection to the pallium has nothing to do with her life and witness, and while the fact that the ABC’s blazon includes a pallium is of some antiquarian interest, I’m not sure how it matters to today’s Christian. Still, Agnes’ feast is an old and beloved one, so it must be kept, if only for the sake of unmarried girls (pace Keats):
    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:
    Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
    His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
    Like pious incense from a censer old,
    Seem’d taking flight for heaven, . . .
    . . . These let us wish away,
    And turn, sole-thoughted, to one Lady there,
    Whose heart had brooded, all that wintry day,
    On love, and wing’d St. Agnes’ saintly care,

    As she had heard old dames full many times declare.
    They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
    Young virgins might have visions of delight,
    And soft adorings from their loves receive
    Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
    If ceremonies due they did aright;
    As, supperless to bed they must retire,
    And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
    Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
    Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.

  3. Because of the paucity of recognized Holy Women, I avoid suggesting that this commemoration be removed, but we really know little of this saint, even to the manner of her death.

    I suggest that the subtitle simply read “Martyr, 304”. We don’t list the place of death of most honorees.

    Seventeen hundred years later, praising a child of 12 for her chastity seems bizarre.

    Was this child murdered for her refusal to marry the son of Sempronius?

    The title should read “Agnes of Rome” to distinguish her from other saints of that name, including St. Agnes of Bohemia (with whose fountain we are all familiar from “Good King Wenceslas”).

    Add a new first paragraph: “Agnes was born about 291 into a noble Roman family.”

    Penultimate line,second paragraph: substitute “pallium” for “pall”. Readers will otherwise confuse the pallium with a funeral pall (the latter word derives from the same Latin word, but that’s not going to be clear.)

    Add a new final paragraph: “The traditional date given for the death of Agnes in Rome is January 21, and she died in about the year 304.”

  4. I don’t think the causative ‘so that’ clause in the collect is good theology—cherishing the memory of anyone other than Christ may cause various good things, but faith, at least as the Bible speaks of it, is not an obvious consequence. I’d simply conjoin the two ideas: ‘Help us to cherish the memory of your youthful martyr Agnes, and share her pure and steadfast faith in you’.

    I’ll add the word ‘appropriately’ to the word ‘cherish’ under my breath.

  5. In my homily on today’s observance of Agnes as a type of virginal soul I began with the assigned love poetry from Song of Songs, “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me” (2.10f.) On the one hand that verse evokes Agnes’ calling as a martyr to follow her allegiance to Jesus all the way to execution. But that allegiance also correlates remarkably with the following verse in Jeremiah 2.2:
    “I remember the devotion of your youth,
    how as a bride you loved me
    and followed me through the wilderness,
    through a land not sown.”
    But there’s also a New Testament connection where such youthful allegiance can be identified as the ardor of one’s ‘first love’ and where we are confronted by our contemporary challenge to return to such chaste and single-minded devotion to God:
    “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first” (Revelation 2.4).
    Accordingly my homily tacks back-and-forth between the two emphases, ancient and contemporary, OT and NT.
    For example I connect the verses both in Song of Songs and Jeremiah with Steve Lusk’s (tongue-in-cheek?) reference above to those signal lines in John Keats’s poem, The Eve of St. Agnes (thanks, Steve):
    “. . . upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
    Young virgins might have visions of delight,
    And soft adorings from their loves receive
    Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
    If ceremonies due they did aright;
    As, supperless to bed they must retire,
    And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
    Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
    Of Heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.”
    These lines by Keats call for some unpacking (I don’t recite but paraphrase), yet offer as reward a parting image of Agnes not brutalized by the executioner’s act but rather ‘requiring of Heaven with upward eyes for all that she desires.’
    Then the homily turns to the NT passage from Revelation, “You have forsaken the love you had at first” (2.2f.). Now due to the Holy Spirit blowing where the Spirit wills our January 21 observance of Agnes’ passion also coincides with this meditation for today from Oswald Chamber’s classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest:
    “God is saying to His people – You are not in love with Me now, but I remember the time when you were – ‘I remember . . . the love of thine espousals.’ [Jer. 2.2 KJV] Am I as full of the extravagance of love to Jesus Christ as I was in the beginning, when I went out of my way to prove my devotion to Him? Does He find me recalling the time when I did not care for anything but Himself? Am I there now, or have I become wise over loving Him? Am I so in love with Him that I take no account of where I go?”
    With this alignment of texts, biblical and extra-biblical, we may finally appropriate for contemporary hearing our Lord’s dominical pronouncement in the gospel reading appointed for Agnes’ feast day: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18.3-4). To turn or return to loving God with a child’s adoration is a fitting observance of this day, for which Agnes serves as our youthful icon.

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