The Later Literary Tradition of the Legend of Agnes

From these core texts, the cult of Saint Agnes continued to grow: in the fifth century, the legends were crystallized in the Gesta of Saint Agnes by an unknown author (see Primary Document 4.5). In that account, several details of Agnes' passion are developed. For example, she acquired a suitor, the pagan fellow-aristocrat who was the son of the prefect who had banished her to the brothel. By the time we read of the martyrdom of Agnes in Jacob de Voragine's famous thirteenth-century Golden Legend, several miracles at her burial site were recorded as part of her acts, including the story of Constantina, the daughter of Constantine who was cured of leprosy while praying at Agnes' tomb (see Primary Document 4.6).

It is in this version, too, that we first read of Agnes appearing with a lamb to those who pray to her. This attribute is likely derived from the similarity of the name Agnes to the Latin word for "lamb," agnus.

Agnes also appeared in the next great edition of saints' lives, that of Alban Butler (see Primary Document 4.7). His four-volume Lives of the Saints was published in London between 1756 and 1759 after thirty years of research. In this account, which included bibliography and scholarly comments, we also read of the ceremony connected to the lamb that was performed on her feast day—January 21. Two lambs were brought into her church on the Nomentana Road in separate baskets resting on expensive damask cushions. With their legs tied in blue and red ribbons, they were placed on the altar. The lambs were blessed while a choir sang an antiphonal hymn, and they were then presented to the pope at the Vatican. From there, the lambs were sent to the nuns at the convent of Saint Cecilia in Trastevere and at Easter they were shorn so that the fleece could be used to make the palliums, which are the special vestments worn by archbishops. Between 1926 and 1938, Herbert Thurston, S.J., published a revised and significantly rewritten edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints. In 1956, Donald Attwater published a second edition with considerable revisions.

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