Agnes, put to death at the age of 13 around 300, became one of the most celebrated martyrs of ancient Rome.
Such was her reputation as a defender of chastity that she became one of the seven women (apart from the Virgin) commemorated in the Canon of the Mass.
It used to be thought that Agnes perished in the persecution of Diocletian – c 304. Some scholars, however, now incline to an earlier date.
The principal sources for her life are St Ambrose (339-397), Damascus, Pope from 366 to 384, who left a panegyric of the saint and the Spanish poet Prudentius (348-c 410).
Relying chiefly on Prudentius, we learn that Agnes was a young Christian woman whose virtues and pulchritude, even at 13, excited all the most eligible bachelors in Rome to contend for her hand. She would have none of them, however, insisting that she had already chosen Jesus Christ as her spouse.
Her disappointed suitors, hoping that threats might succeed where persuasion had failed, duly reported her to the authorities as a Christian. Her judge at first adopted the mildest tone, but, finding her obdurate, soon proceeded to the most terrible threats.
Fires were lit, and instruments of torture paraded before her. Agnes, though, merely expressed joy at the prospect of suffering, showing particular enthusiasm when threatened with the rack.
Dragged before statues of pagan gods and commanded to offer incense, Agnes discovered that she could not move her arm save to make the Sign of the Cross.
The exasperated authorities now ordered that their victim should be stripped and flung into a brothel. The customers, however, were so overawed by Agnes’s virtue that they dared not approach her.
This was just as well, for one young rake, who ventured to take a peek, was instantly struck blind. At Agnes’s solicitation, his sight was soon restored.
After that, the prefect could think of no better plan than sentencing Agnes to death. She went to the place of execution, we are told, “more cheerfully than others go to their wedding”.
Her head was severed at a single stroke, according to Prudentius, though Ambrose assures us that she was stabbed in the throat, while Pope Damascus refers to “flames”.
There is, however, general agreement that Agnes was buried beside the Via Nomentana, which leads north-east from Rome. There, before 354, Constantina, the daughter of the Emperor Constantine, built a mausoleum in her honour.
Pope Honorius added a church, Sant’ Agnese Fuori la Mura, in the seventh century, where Agnes’s remains still lie in a silver sarcophagus. Her head, however, is in the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in the Piazza Navona.
For no very obvious reason young maidens are apparently liable to have visions of their lovers on St Agnes’ Eve.