Today being the Feast of St. Agnes, one of the early martyrs of the Church, I would direct the reader to an interesting painting of her, located here in Washington at the National Gallery of Art. It continues to amaze me, whenever I visit the National Gallery, how a small, core group of collectors – including the Mellons, the Wideners and the Bruces, among others- were able to gather a collection of great Old Master paintings in a comparatively brief period of time that would have been the pride of any royal house. While not as vast as the holdings of the Louvre, Prado, or Hermitage, which of course were put together over the course of many centuries, there is a wonderfully satisfying aspect to the array of Old Master paintings at the NGA. From the very early dawn of the Renaissance with works by artists such as Duccio, up through the bitter end of the Ancien Régime with artists like Goya, the museum in this respect stays true to its mandate of providing a comprehensive, highly educational overview of the development of Western art.
The piece in question is a work by El Greco representing the Madonna and Child with St. Martina and St. Agnes, painted sometime between 1597-1599 for the Chapel of St. Joseph in Toledo. It originally hung opposite another painting by El Greco, his St. Martin and the Beggar, which is also now in the collection of the National Gallery. The painting shows the Virgin and Child, surrounded by angels, appearing in the clouds to the two martyrs. St. Agnes stands on the right, with the lamb that is normally associated with her iconographically.
This lamb is, for the viewer, a “clue” as to the identity of this female figure which, in a earlier age, all or most Catholics would have been aware of when looking at the art in their churches. Today it is, I suspect, yet another example of how today’s average Catholic needs to make an effort to educate himself about the lives of the saints and the history of the Church. Let us take advantage of this learning opportunity:
For obvious reasons, records about the lives of individual early Christians are usually spotty. When you are on the run, it is difficult to keep written records. After all, you are probably gathering to celebrate the mass in places like graveyards, to keep out of sight of the authorities, and your bishops keep getting arrested, tortured, and put to death. Thus there is hardly likely to be a diocesan vicar or parish secretary you can call upon to keep the baptismal certificates or the parish council minutes. In the case of St. Agnes however, she and her sacrifice have been remembered and honored from the time of her death, and documented from a very early date.
We know that St. Agnes was most likely martyred, like St. Cucuphas and many others, under the rabid persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian in around 304 A.D. All accounts agree that she was killed when she was only a young girl, and most that she was probably around 12-13 years old at the time. She has been listed in the most ancient feasts of Christian martyrs of the Church almost since the time she was killed: the first written record of her feast day falling on January 21st dates from a Roman martyrology (the Deposito Martyrum) compiled in 354 A.D., only 50 years after her murder.
The most straightforward, non-hagiographic recountings of her life emphasize her youth, piety and desire to remain chaste, which is why she has remained a model for young Christian girls ever since. Legend says that a pure, white lamb was seen by those visiting her grave, and this is why the lamb is symbolically associated with her. If you are looking at a painting with a group of female saints, St. Agnes is almost certainly the only young girl who will be shown holding a lamb.
Personally, I would think it more likely that the development of this iconography has more to do with those artists who first began to portray her making a play on words. Her name, “Agnes”, is very similar to the Latin word “Agnus” or lamb. If you are an artist painting a picture of St. Agnes, a young martyred girl from the time of the Roman persecutions, on the wall of a church or on a panel, you need to be able to distinguish her from all of the other young girls you may also have to represent in the same space, such as St. Lucy, St. Agatha, St. Barbara, and so on. Using the lamb makes sense for both the painter and for the faithful, so that they can reflect on the great faith of this young woman as an individual.
In the case of this particular work, El Greco’s idiosyncratic, somewhat mystical style is brought out if we examine the detail of St. Agnes herself. At first glance, her iconic lamb seems to be wresting in a crook made by St. Agnes’ left hand and forearm. On closer inspection however, we realize that St. Agnes is not actually supporting the weight of the lamb with either her hand or her arm. The lamb is simply resting against them and is somewhat floating, or being otherwise supported by unseen means.
This apparent oddity, striking when one realizes it, is not only clearly defying the laws of physics, it is more importantly perfectly in keeping with El Greco’s development as an artist. As his career progressed, he moved further and further away from the physical and material world into something which was quite new. His ever-increasing attempts to lend a greater spirituality and other-worldliness to pieces such as this which, alongside elements such as the incredibly elongated forms of the principal figures and the host of translucent cherubs, are meant to transport us to the contemplation of the Divine.
The story of the life, or more precisely the death, of St. Agnes is a bloody and unpleasant one, by all accounts. Today we reflect on her murder, but it is more important to remember what she died for: her Faith. As her name indeed suggests, as the proverbial lamb led to slaughter, she gave up her life in imitation of the Great Lamb of God, in order to witness to the Church and to the world. El Greco, too, focuses on the reward received by St. Agnes because of her faith, and in so doing hopes to inspire us to, even in our small and non-bloody way, follow the example of her devotion to and imitation of Christ.
by El Greco, (c. 1597-1599)
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.