Ercole Ferrata. Death of St. Agnes. 1660-4. Sant'Agnese in Agone, Rome.
The most beloved of the virgin martyrs of Rome was Agnes. She was a martyr during, presumably, Diocletian’s persecution in 304. Ambrose, Augustine, Damasus and Prudentius all tell part of her story. Constantine’s daughter, Constantia, had a basilica built over her grave and catacomb. The Depositio Martyrum (roman calendar of the feasts of the martyrs), at least, by 354 has her day as 21 January. What is constant in her story is her youth, twelve or thirteen, and her remaining chastity upon attack, and unto death. She was an attractive child from an important family. She was desired by several. She was not interested in an earthy spouse, so she was denounced to the government. Threat, coaxing, cajoling did not sway her. An attempt to defile her in a brothel failed. She was executed.
In representation, she is, sometimes, seen admidst flames and a sword. The flames did not kill her, so she was victim of the blade. Since the name, Agnes, is close to ‘agnus’, lamb. Sometimes, she is seen as blonde girl holding the martyr’s palm, and accompanied by a lamb.
Now, on Saint Agnes Day, two lambs are taken from the Trappist abbey, Tre Fontane, and re blessed by the pope. The wool from these two is used for palliums. The pallium is a band of cloth, that is worn on the chest and back, in the shape of two Ys, where the arms of the Ys are joined of the shoulders. This is a liturgical garment worn by the pope, archbishops, primates and metropolitans.