St Agnes of Rome (c. 291 – c.304) is one of the saints commemorated in the canon of the Mass.
A member of the Roman nobility, she was raised in a Christian family and martyred at the age of 12 or 13 under Diocletian.
According to her legend, the Prefect Sempronius wished Agnes to marry his son, and on Agnes' refusal on the grounds that she was already affianced to Our Lord, he condemned her to death. As Roman law did not permit the execution of virgins, Sempronius had a naked Agnes dragged through the streets to a brothel.
Various versions of her legend give different methods of escape from this predicament. In one, as she prayed, her hair grew and covered her body. It was also said that all of the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind. In another the son of the Prefect is struck dead, but revived after Agnes prayed for him, causing her release. There is then a trial from which Sempronius excuses himself, and another figure presides, sentencing her to death.
When led out to die she was tied to a stake, but the bundle of wood would not burn, or the flames parted away from her, whereupon the officer in charge of the troops drew his sword and beheaded her, or, in some other texts, stabbed her in the throat. It is also said that the blood of Agnes poured to the stadium floor where other Christians soaked up the blood with cloths.
On her feast day, two lambs are brought each year to the Pope to be blessed. 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.
Her feast is Class II in monasteries of nuns, but otherwise Class III.
There is a curious history to her celebration, as in the Roman (though not Benedictine) calendars there is actually a 'second feast' of St Agnes celebrated on January 21, speculation on whose origins you can read about here. Dom Gueranger's take on the second feast, though, goes as follows:
Five days after the martyrdom of the Virgin Emerentiana, the parents of the glorious Saint Agnes visited the tomb of their child, during the night, there to weep and pray. It was the eighth day since her martyrdom.
Whilst they were thinking upon the cruel death, which, though it had enriched their child with a Martyr's palm, had deprived them of her society — Agnes suddenly appeared to them : she was encircled with a bright light, and wore a crown on her head, and was surrounded by a choir of virgins of dazzling beauty. On her right hand, there stood a beautiful white lamb, the emblem of the Divine Spouse of Agnus. Tturning towards her parents, she said to them" Weep not over my death : for I am now in heaven, together with these virgins, living with Him, whom I loved on earth with my whole soul."
It is to commemorate this glorious apparition, that the holy Church has instituted this Feast, which is called Saint Agnes' Second Feast (Sanctae Agnetis secundo.)...