“At Rome, the passion of St. Agnes, virgin, who under Symphronius, governor of the city, was thrown into the fire, but as it was extinguished by her prayers, she was struck with the sword. Of her, St. Jerome writes: ‘Agnes is praised in the writings and by the tongues of all nations, especially in the churches. She overcame the weakness of her age, conquered the cruelty of the tyrant, and consecrated her chastity by martyrdom.’”
One of the four great virgin martyrs of the Latin Church (the others being Cecilia, Agatha, and Lucia), Agnes was a Roman girl of twelve or thirteen when she met her death for her faith. According to tradition, she was born into a Christian family, and early vowed her life to Jesus alone. She refused all offers of marriage, including those of the son of the local prefect. Instead of taking his rejection like a gentleman, Junior complained to his father, who, when he learned the reason why his son was behaving like a love-sick calf, at first besought young Agnes to accept the marriage; when she would not, he tried to turn her into a Vestal Virgin, and when she refused that, sent her to a brothel. She was protected from that as well.
Finally, she was condemned to be burnt at the stake, but the flames being extinguished as she prayed, a soldier killed her with his sword. Thus she earned her Heavenly Crown.
She is most often distinguished in art by the inclusion of a lamb at her side – a play on her name (Agnus = lamb).
The illustration above, from Pictorial Lives of the Saints, is taken from the tradition that she was sent to a brothel to be subjected to sexual assault. On the way, the soldiers stripped her of her clothes, but her hair miraculously grew to cover her like a veil. Left in the house of ill-repute, she prayed not to be dishonored, and an angel brought a shining white garment to cover her. He also struck blind the man who attempted to rape her – in some accounts the same young man whom she had refused (she later prayed for his healing).
For centuries, two lambs have been brought to the Pope for his blessing on this day. Their wool is woven into the pallium given to an archbishop as a sign of his authority. William Shepard Walsh described the ceremonies in his book Curiosities of Popular Customs (1898):
“First, two chosen lambs are on St. Agnes’ Day brought to the church of St. Agnes at Rome by the apostolic subdeacons, while the Agnus Dei is being sung. These lambs are presented at the altar, received by two canons of the Lateran church, and solemnly blessed. After Mass, the lambs are taken in charge by the nuns of St. Agnes until shearing-time, when their wool is spun and woven into pallia by the nuns of Torre de’ Specchia. On the vigil of the festival of SS. Peter and Paul, the newly made pallia are carried on gilded trays to St. Peter’s, where they are blessed by the Pope and laid by the subdeacons upon the tomb of St. Peter. Here they remain all night. Next day they are locked up in a silver coffer close to the relics of St. Peter, where they remain until required.”
In the 16th century, Naogeorgus condemned the practice in no uncertain terms (well, he condemned all Catholic practices, so that’s not surprising):
“Then comes in place Saint Agnes day, which here in Germany,
Is not so much esteemed, nor kept with such solemnity,
But in the Popish Court it stands in passing high degree,
As spring and head of wondrous gain, and great commodity.
For in Saint Agnes Church upon this day while Mass they sing,
Two Lambs as white as snow, the Nuns do yearly use to bring,
And when the Agnus chanted is, upon the altar high
(For in this thing there hidden is a solemn mystery)
They offer them. The servants of the Pope when this is done,
Do put them into Pasture good ‘till shearing time be come.
Then other wool they mingle with these holy fleeces twain,
Whereof being spun and dressed, are made the Palls of passing gain.
Three fingers commonly in breadth, and wrought in compass so,
As on the Bishops shoulders well they round about may go.
These Palls thus on the shoulders set, both on the back and breast,
Have labels hanging something low, the ends whereof are dressed,
And tipped with plates of weighty lead, and vesture black arrayed,
And last of all to make an end, with knots are surely stayed.
O joyful day of Agnes, and to Papists full of gain,
O precious worthy Lambs, O wool most fortunate again.
O happy they that spin and weave the same, whose hands may touch
This holy wool, and make these Palls of price and virtue such.
For by the same the Bishops have their full authority,
And Metropolitans are forced, these dearly for to buy.
Bestowing sometime eight, or ten, yea, thirty thousand crowns,
Ere half the year be full expired, for these same pelting gowns.
Nor can they use the Pall that was their predecessor’s late
Nor play the Bishop, nor receive the Primates high estate,
‘Till that he get one of his own; with such like subtlety
The Pope does all men poll (tax), without respect of Simony.
Perchance such force does not in these same holy Lambs remain,
Nor of itself the wool so much, nor all the weavers pain,
As these same pollers seem to say; for thus these palls being wrought,
Are straightways to St. Peter’s Church by hand of Deacons brought,
And underneath the altar all the night they buried lie,
Among Saint Peter’s relics and Saint Paul’s (his fellow) lie.
From hence the sacred juice they draw, and power celestial,
As if the Holy Ghost should give these Clerks his virtue all.”
Agnesenplätzchen aka SAINT AGNES COOKIES
These are sandwich cookies, i.e. a bottom cookie spread with a smooth filling and topped by another cookie. All of the English recipes online come from a book called “Cooking with the Saints” by Ernst Schuegraf (you can find it in Google Books). He uses a very simple refrigerator dough of sugar, butter, and flour, cut in rounds, with apricot jam for the filling. (Possibly too simple; I haven’t tried it, but it seems too dry to be a workable dough). The images for the German recipes online have different shapes and fillings, including (mmmmm) melted chocolate.
With that in mind, you could make life easy on yourself by slicing a roll of store-bought refrigerator cookie dough into 1/8 to ¼ inch thick rounds, baking them according to package directions, and then spreading one round with your choice of filling and topping with another round, and so on. [If your slices don’t come out in even numbers, I’m sure the cook’s helper(s) will be happy to hide the evidence for you. Mine always did.]
Or make life even easier by sandwiching the filling between two store-bought cookies, like shortbreads or vanilla wafers.
Or make your own dough.
Preheat oven to 375° F.
Grind ½ cup of nuts very fine (blanched almonds are a good choice)
In a small bowl, sift 2 cups of flour with ¼ teaspoon of salt.
In a large bowl, cream together 2/3 cup of soft butter (or margarine, if you must) and 1 cup of sugar. Stir in 2 tablespoons of heavy cream, ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract, and the ground nuts.
Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and, with your hands, mix well to form a smooth dough [The younger of the cook’s helpers usually like this stage]. Gather into a ball and wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap; refrigerate for several hours.
When firm, roll out dough to 1/8 inch thickness; cut out shapes with a floured 2-inch round cookie cutter (scalloped edges always look fancy) or other cutter (a little lamb cutter would be cute).
Carefully place on ungreased cookie sheets and bake for 10 – 12 minutes. When done, remove cookies to a baking rack to cool. Put together in pairs with jelly or jam (one recipe calls for currant jelly, another for raspberry jam, so go with what you have. Since mint jelly is served with lamb, would that be too fanciful…..?)
For the adults, LAMBSWOOL, that lovely warm drink of mulled ale (or cider) and roasted apples, which makes cold winter nights less cold.
Heat oven to 450° F. Place 4 - 6 cored apples in a baking pan and roast in the hot oven for about an hour or until they are very soft.
Heat 1 quart of ale or cider in a pot. Stir in any of the hot spices: ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, ground ginger, ground cloves, ground cardamom, ground allspice (and depending on how many spices you use, don't let the total be more than 1 to 2 teaspoons. 1/4 teaspoon EACH of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves is good; more or less according to taste). Add brown sugar by tablespoonsful - up to 1/2 cup - tasting after each addition for desired sweetness. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
Place the roasted apples in a warmed punchbowl and pour the hot liquid over them. Serve hot.
(If you use cider, it will be suitable for the minors in the family. Not saying it will be enjoyed. Mulled cider is an acquired taste.)
“Saint Agnes”, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves (15th c)
“Agnes in the Brothel” from Pictorial Lives of the Saints by John Gilmary Shea (1889)
“Saint Agnes” from A Manual of Prayers for the Use of the Catholic Laity (1896)