Agnes, the daughter of a noble Roman family who had become a Christian, was martyred at the age of twelve or thirteen during a persecution of Christians when she openly declared her belief. Her name is in the Roman Canon, and in the earliest Church calendar (354 AD), her feast was assigned to January 21, on which all accounts of her death agree. Agnes was martyred in 304, in the persecution of Diocletian, or possibly earlier, in a third century persecution. According to very early accounts, her enraged persecuters attempted to burn Agnes, and when this failed, they decapitated her.
Testimony to her courageous witness was given in early accounts. An account of her martyrdom was written by Saint Ambrose (340-387) in "De Virginibus", and Pope Damasus (ca. 304-384) extolled the heroism and virtue of the young girl, reportedly telling in a poem how she bravely faced fire, concerned only that her stripped body be covered by her long hair.
The Pope also wrote an inscription to her on a marble slab, which can still be seen at the foot of the stairs leading to the sepulchre in the church built over her grave during the reign of Constantine (ca 275-337). According to the description of her martyrdom by Prudentius (348-413), as part of the persecution "the judge threatened to give over her virginity to a house of prostitution, and even executed this threat; but when a young man turned a lascivious look upon the virgin, he fell to the ground stricken with blindness...".
The church built over her tomb in the 4th Century, Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura ("Saint Agnes outside the walls), stands today -- on the Via Nomentana -- much the same as it was after it was remodeled by Pope Honorius (625-638). A mosaic in the apse of the church shows the young saint as a Byzantine empress, amid flames with a sword at her feet.
Another perhaps more famous church, Sant'Agnese in Agone, faces the Piazza Navona in Rome. Originally a 9th century oratory built over the the site of her martyrdom, a brothel in the arcades of the Circus of Domitian, also known as the Circus Agonalis, it was consecrated as a church by Pope Calixtus II on January 28, 1123. The present church was extensively remodeled in the 17th century by Rainaldi, according to plans by Borromini, and was influential in Baroque architecture. The Roman ruins of the brothel where Agnes was martyred are accessible from inside the church.
Since the early middle-ages, Saint Agnes is usually depicted holding a lamb (agnus - a pun on her name) as a symbol of her purity. At least since the 9th Century, each year on the Feast of Saint Agnes, two lambs are solemnly blessed at the church of Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura. From the wool of these lambs are made the pallium (a strip of white wool with black crosses woven into the fabric) given by the Pope to an archbishop as a sign of office.
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Almighty, everlastingGod, who choose what is weak in the world to confound the strong, mercifully grant that we who celebrate the heavenly birthday of your Martyr Saint Agnes may follow her constancy in the faith. Through our Lord.
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St. Agnes Feast and the Wool for Palliums (pallia)
This ancient feast retains a custom of blessing of the wool of two lambs brought to the pope from the Trappist Abbey of Tre Fontane.
The wool from the lambs is given to the nuns to weave the pallia. The pallia spend some time at the relics of Saint Peter below the main altar of Saint Peter's Basilica showing a special unity between the Pontiff and the archbishop.
The pallium is a white woolen band embroidered with six black crosses worn over the shoulders and has two hanging pieces, front and back.
Since the 9th century, the pallium has wider use and is worn by the pope and by metropolitan archbishops symbolizing authority and expresses the special bond of unity between the archbishop and the Roman Pontiff.
Pallia are given, upon request from by the metropolitan archbishops on the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul (June 29) by the pope.
The pallium is worn by the archbishop in his diocese and when necessary, in the other diocese in the ecclesiastical province (sometimes calledthe Metropolitanate) and generally was worn for significant ecclesial events like the blessing of Chrism, ordinations, consecration of altars; and, more recently, for Confirmations and Sunday Mass during Parish Visitations.
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Pope John Paul II began the tradition of distributing the pallium on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, which always falls on June 29, to emphasize the unity of bishops around the world with the successor of St. Peter.
The use of the pallium is reserved to the pope and archbishops. Worn by the pope, the pallium symbolizes the plenitude of pontifical office; worn by archbishops, it typifies their participation in the supreme pastoral power of the pope, who concedes it to them for their proper Church provinces.
The pallium is a circular band about two inches wide, worn about the neck, breast, and shoulders, and having two pendants, one hanging down in front and one behind. The pendants are about 2 inches wide and 12 inches long, and are weighted with small pieces of lead covered with black silk.
The remainder of the pallium is made of white wool, part of which is supplied by two lambs presented annually on the feast of St. Agnes, solemnly blessed, and then offered to the pope.
The ornamentation of the pallium consists of six small black crosses — one each on the breast and back, one on each shoulder, and one on each pendant. The crosses on the breast, back, and left shoulder are provided with a loop for the reception of a gold pin set with a precious stone. The pallium is worn over the chasuble.