Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Second Feast of St Agnes: A Liturgical Oddity

January 28th is traditionally the day of the “Second Feast of St Agnes”, although this very ancient observance was reduced to a commemoration in 1931, and abolished in the post-Conciliar reform. It is still kept in some churches dedicated to St Agnes, most prominent among them, the basilica built over the site of her burial, less than a mile and a half from the gates of Rome.

The church of St Agnes Outside-the-Walls on the via Nomentana. (Image from Wikimedi Commonsa. by the parish of St Agnes Outside-the-Walls; CC BY-SA 2.0)
In liturgical books, the formal name of the feast is “Sanctae Agnetis secundo”, which literally means “(the feast) of St Agnes for the second time.” This title is found on the calendar of the Tridentine Missal and Breviary, as also seven centuries earlier in the Gregorian Sacramentary. The single Matins lesson in the Breviary of St Pius V tells us that after her death, Agnes appeared first to her parents to console them, and then to the Emperor Constantine’s daughter Constantia, who suffered from an incurable sore, while she was praying at her grave, exhorting Constantia to trust in Christ and receive baptism. Having done this and been healed, Constantia later built a basilica in the Saint’s honor.

The original purpose of the second feast, however, is not at all clear; theories abound, but evidence is lacking. In the Wurzburg lectionary, the oldest of the Roman Rite, January 21 is “natale S. Agnae de passione – the birth (into heaven) of Agnes, of her passion,”, while January 28 is simply “de natali.” One theory is that the actual day of her death was the 28th, and the 21st originally commemorated the beginning of her sufferings, starting with her trial and condemnation. However, we would then expect something similar for other prominent martyrs, particularly St Lawrence, whose passion also extended over a variety of days and events. The next oldest lectionary, Codex Murbach, doesn’t mention the second feast at all, nor does the Lectionary of Alcuin. In the Gregorian Sacramentary, the titles are simply “natale” and “natale...secundo.”

The prayers of the old Gelasian Sacramentary, which dates to the mid-8th century, and uses titles for the two feasts similar to those in the Wurzburg lectionary, may refer to the idea that St Agnes’ passion began on the 21st, and her death occurred on the 28th. One of the two collects for the former refers to the day “of her passion”, and asks that “we may follow the constancy of her faith,” while the Secret of the latter says that “she was glorious from the beginning of her blessed contest unto the end.” On the other hand, the Collect that goes with it says that we are “repeating” her feast, while the Secret on the 21st speaks of her “heavenly victory”, certainly a more appropriate expression for the actual day of death. In the revised Gelasian Sacramentaries, the preface of January 21st speaks of “the day consecrated by the martyrdom of the blessed Agnes” and of her “receiving a precious death ... for the confession of Christ”, while that of January 28th speaks of “doubling (her heavenly) birthday”, but also says that she “went forth so that she might come to share in divinity.” In short, the earliest evidence in inconclusive.
A leaf of the Gellone Sacramentary, a sacramentary of the revised Gelasian type written in 780-800. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048; folio 17r); the feast of St Agnes “de nativitate” begins with the rubric in the sixth line. There are two Collects, the first of which is also said in the Missal and Breviary of St Pius V; the second is the one which refers to “repeating” her feast. The preface is the third element from the bottom.
The most common theory, and the most influential, is that the second feast represents a primitive form of octave. I find this theory unconvincing, but it does have one notable point in its favor. In the old Gelasian Sacramentary, some of the octaves (those of Christmas, St Lawrence and St Andrew) are referred to in terms similar to those of the “repeated” feast of St Agnes: “festivitas” or “solemnia” paired with the word “repetita” or “iterata.” However, by the end of the 8th century, the Gregorian Sacramentary had not only simplified the title of the feast as noted above, but also removed this kind of expression from its prayers, while retaining similar expressions (though not in all of the manuscripts) on some of the other octaves. This strongly indicates that the Second Feast of St Agnes was understood to be something different from the other octaves.

Moreover, St Agnes was the single most prominent female martyr of ancient Rome, very much on a par with other great Roman martyrs like Ss Peter and Paul and St Lawrence. Pope Honorius I built her current church in the 7th century to replace an earlier one that had fallen into ruin. (It has subsequently undergone numerous restorations.) The original, however, was one of the basilicas built by the Emperor Constantine in the very early years of the Peace of the Church, along with those of the two Apostles, Lawrence, and the cathedral of Rome at the Lateran. The early manuscripts mentioned above all refer to the “octaves” of Ss Peter and Paul and St Lawrence; it seems very odd that the octave of such a prominent Saint as Agnes, and hers alone, should instead be called a “feast … for the second time.”

Nevertheless, Dom Suitbert Bäumer (1845-96), in his History of the Breviary refers to it as an example of an octave that has only a commemoration on the eighth day, with no mention made of the feast on the days in between. (pp. 31-32 of the French edition, vol. 2, 1905) In support of this theory, he cites a text of the year 1085 called the “Micrologus de Ecclesiasticis Observantiis – Summary of Church Services”; it was Dom Bäumer himself who identified the author as one Bernold of Constance, a supporter of the great reformer Popes of that era. In chapter 44, Bernold writes that “according to the authority of Rome, … we make no daily mention of those whose octaves we celebrate on the intervening days, … except for those of St Mary (i.e., the Assumption), and of St Peter.”

What he says in this regard, however, is hardly conclusive. Fifty years later, a canon of St Peter’s Basilica named Benedict, in a treatise now known as the 11th Ordo Romanus, describes the manner of celebrating the days within octaves, specifically mentioning those of Saints John the Baptist, Peter, Lawrence, and the Assumption alongside those of Christmas and Epiphany. (chapter 68) A similar custom is attested in the Ordinal of Pope Innocent III at the beginning of the 13th century. Bäumer radically overstates his case when he attributes the celebration of the days within octaves to the influence of the Franciscans; St Francis was born fifty years after Canon Benedict wrote, and received verbal approval for his order from Innocent III only a few years before the latter’s Ordinal was compiled circa 1213-16. Simply put, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bäumer fell into the trap that the liturgical scholars of his era routinely fell into, extrapolating too much from too little evidence.

I write above that Bäumer’s was “the most influential” explanation for the Second Feast of St Agnes, because it seems to have been the model for part of the Breviary reform of Pope St Pius X. Prior to this reform, octaves were celebrated with varying degrees of precedence, but not formally divided into classes as feasts were. The reform of 1911 created three classes of octaves, “privileged, common and simple,” the first of which was subdivided into three orders. The simple octaves are those attached to feasts of the second rank (among six), called Doubles of the Second Class; such octaves are celebrated as a Simple feast (the lowest of the six grades) on the eighth day, with no mention of them on the intermediary days.

St Agnes on the Pyre, by Ercole Ferrata, 1660-64, in the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, built at the site of her martyrdom in the Piazza Navona in Rome.
This article was originally published in 2016; it has been partially re-written to include the results of some new research, but its conclusions are the same.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: