Jan 212014


Today is the feast of Agnes of Rome (c. 291 – c. 304) a virgin–martyr, also known simply as St Agnes or St Ines. She is the patron saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape victims, and virgins. Agnes is depicted in art with a lamb, as her name resembles the Latin word for “lamb,” agnus. The name “Agnes” is actually derived from the feminine Greek adjective “hagne” (ἁγνή) meaning “chaste, pure, or sacred.”

According to tradition, Saint Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility born c. 291 and raised in a Christian family. She suffered martyrdom at the age of twelve or thirteen during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, on 21 January 304. As with all early saints there are a great many fabulous stories surrounding her martyrdom, but the nugget that lies at the heart appears to be that being from a noble family, she was courted by a great many men who were not Christians.  She refused them all and so she was reported to the emperor as a Christian.  Diocletian held one of the most brutal series of purges of Christians during imperial times, so this seems entirely plausible.  An early account of Agnes’ death, stressing her steadfastness and virginity, but not the legendary features of the tradition, is given by Saint Ambrose.

Her bones are said to be interred under the altar of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, a basilica built over ancient catacombs in Rome (which can still be visited).


It is customary on her feast day for two lambs to be brought from the Trappist abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome to be blessed by the Pope. On Holy Thursday they are shorn, and from the wool is woven the pallium which the pope gives to a newly consecrated metropolitan archbishop as a sign of his jurisdiction and his union with the pope

In popular tradition the feast of St Agnes is a lot less important than the eve of the feast (i.e. Jan 20th), which is a day/night of prognostication for unmarried women to perform certain rituals which, if done correctly, allow the women to dream of their future husbands.  In one version, a girl could see her future husband in a dream if on the eve of St. Agnes she would go to bed without any supper, undress herself so that she was completely naked and lie on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens and not to look behind. Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her.

A Scottish version of the ritual involved young women meeting together on St. Agnes’ Eve at midnight, they would go one by one, into a remote field and throw in some grain, after which they repeated the following rhyme in a prayer to St. Agnes:

“ Agnes sweet, and Agnes fair, Hither, hither, now repair; Bonny Agnes, let me see The lad who is to marry me. ”

John Keats used these traditions as the basis for his poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” a long poem that is rather reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, although with a less tragic end.  Madeline, the heroine, is the member of a warlike family, sworn enemy to the family of Porphyro, the man she loves.  On the eve of St Agnes Madeline’s kin become involved in a long drinking session while Madeline pines for the love of Porphyro. The old women of the household have told her she may receive sweet dreams of love from him if on this night, St. Agnes’ Eve, she retires to bed under the proper ritual of silence and receptiveness.

Porphyro makes his way to the castle and braves entry, seeking out Angela, an elderly woman friendly to his family, and persuades her to lead him to Madeline’s room at night where he may gaze upon her sleeping form. Angela is persuaded only with difficulty, saying she fears damnation if Porphyro does not afterward marry the girl.


Concealed in an ornately carved closet in Madeline’s room, Porphyro watches as Madeline makes ready for bed, and then, beholding her full beauty in the moonlight, creeps forth to prepare for her a feast of rare delicacies. Madeline wakes and sees before her the same image she has seen in her dream, and thinking Porphyro part of it, receives him into her bed. Awakening in full and realizing her mistake, she tells Porphyro she cannot hate him for his deception since her heart is so much in his.

Porphyro declares his love for Madeline and promises her a home with him over the southern moors. They escape the castle past drunken revelers, and flee into the night.


I admit that the bald story is not much, you have to read the poem.  But for your food treat for the day, this is what Porphyro prepared for his love:

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,            
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,      
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;                      
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,        
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;             
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d              
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,         
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.