Protestant history lesson: St. Agnes (January 21st)

The girl has long straight hair, hippy-style, quite unlike my own.  She can’t be more than 12 or 13—just barely a woman, not yet comfortable with her own body—when she runs into a stranger on the way home from school.  He’s wealthy and handsome and—after one look—head-over-heels in love with this little girl.  But when he asks her to marry him (isn’t this the way that fairy tales end?), she rejects his offer: “I”m already engaged; I have another lover.”  The boy can only guess why she said this, and when he finds out, he’s furious.  The “lover” that she references is none other than Jesus Christ himself. 

[Contemporary Christian music has a lot wrong with it, but the “jesus-in-my-pants” love song tradition goes back a loooooong way]. 

As punishment, the boy’s father sends her to a brothel to be stripped and humiliated, ringed by men that the boy urges to take advantage of the woman who rejected him.  Her hair, at this point, grows longer and fuller and thicker, stretching past her waist down to her knees, and then her ankles.  She is a veritable Cousin Itt… assuming that Cousin Itt was also surrounded by light that prevents men from coming near. 

The rejected boy, however, is not impressed with these miracles; he attempts to enter the brothel and is immediately struck dead at the door.  Seeing his lifeless form, the girl takes pity on him and tells him to rise, just as Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter.  To show his gratitude for getting his life back, the boy then turns her over to the authorities, who try to burn her at the stake.  But because death by burning is not a noble, manly death, the flames do not harm her.  The only thing that will kill her is a phallic symbol, a dagger through the throat.  On January 21st she enters into eternal life, and her death day becomes her feast day.  The girl-becoming-woman becomes a saint:  St. Agnes.

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In case you were curious about my St. Agnes’ Eve activities, I  did NOT follow the St. Agnes’ Eve prescription for finding a husband last night.   

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The image to the upper right is from the El Greco painting “Madonna & Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes.”  I love El Greco, mainly because I first encountered his work in Spanish cathedrals and it’s easily recognizable anywhere else.  (Don’t you love the feeling of hoity-toity artsiness that you get from identifying an artist based on just a quick glimpse at her/his work?).  This painting is particularly special because the woman who sits opposite St. Agnes is unidentifiable — she’s either St. Martina OR St. Thecla, who is the first saint I fell in love with… but you’ll have to wait until September to hear about HER feast day.

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*For an intriguing article discussing virgin martyr saints (incl. St. Agnes) and the phenomenon of (near) rape in the Roman era & medieval hagiography, see Kathleen Coyne Kelly’s “Useful Virgins in Medieval Hagiography” in Constructions of Widowhood & Virginity in the Middle Ages (St. Martin, 1999).  I’m sorry if I’m throwing my coursework @ you, but hey!  it’s a blog!  you are choosing to read this!

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