Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Today In History, The Eve of St. Anges

Madeleine undressing, painting by John Everette Millais 1863. In doing my research for the Pre-Raphaelites I can across this beauty by Millais. It led me to an even bigger unanswered question : What is the Eve of St. Anges? I have read many novels that have briefly mentioned it but never in detail.

St. Anges is the patron saint of chastity, gardeners, girls, engaged couples, rape victims, and virgins. She died a 12 or 13 yr old virgin martyr in fourth century Rome. The eve being on the 20th of January followed by feast day on the 21st. Her birthday is also a feast day which is the 28th of January. Her name "Agnes" is actually derived from the feminine Greek adjective meaning "chaste, pure, sacred". She was a christian and of a noble family but her refusal to marry the prefect Sempronius son led to her being condemned to her death. She was a rich heiress and her Christan belief kept her from accepting the betrothal.

As the Roman law went virgins were not allow to be executed. "Sempronius had a naked Agnes dragged through the streets to a brothel. As she prayed, her hair grew and covered her body. It was also said that all of the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind". When the time came for the execution she was to be burned at the stake but the wood would not light. A officer beheaded her in his frustrations. After her death a young girl named Emerentiana who claimed to be the child of Ange's nanny was found weeping at her tomb. She blasted them for killing her "foster sister" and she was stoned to death for it. She was also later canonized.

The Eve of St. Anges has been immortalized in a long poem by John Keats (1819)
"Keats based his poem on the superstition that a girl could see her future husband in a dream if she performed certain rites on the eve of St. Agnes; that is she would go to bed without any supper, undress herself so that she was completely naked and lie on her bed with her hands under the pillow and looking up to the heavens and not to look behind. Then the proposed husband would appear in her dream, kiss her, and feast with her."

"On a bitterly chill night, an ancient beadsman performs his penances while in the castle of Madeline's warlike family, a bibulous revel has begun. Madeline pines for the love of Porphyro, sworn enemy to her kin. The old dames have told her she may receive sweet dreams of love from him if on this night, St. Agnes' Eve, she retires to bed under the proper ritual of silence and supine receptiveness.

As we might expect, Porphyro makes his way to the castle and braves entry, seeking out Angela, an elderly woman friendly to his family, and importuning her to lead him to Madeline's room at night where he may but gaze upon her sleeping form. Angela is persuaded only with difficulty, saying she fears damnation if Porphyro does not afterward marry the girl.

Concealed in an ornate carven closet in Madeline's room, Porphyro watches as Madeline makes ready for bed, and then, beholding her full beauty in the moonlight, creeps forth to prepare for her a feast of rare delicacies. Madeline wakes and sees before her the same image she has seen in her dream, and thinking Porphyro part of it, receives him into her bed. Awakening in full and realizing her mistake, she tells Porphyro she cannot hate him for his deception since her heart is so much in his, but that if he goes now he leaves behind "A dove forlorn and lost / With sick unpruned wing".

Porphyro declares his love for Madeline and promises her a home with him over the southern moors. They escape the castle past insensate revelers, and flee into the night. The beadsman, "His thousand Aves told / For aye unsought-for slept among his ashes cold".


  1. I LOVE this post - so interesting! I've heard of this day, but never knew what it meant.

    I love learning this stuff! Thanks for posting Lizzy! And the Millais painting is exquisite.

  2. Lizzy, that is amazing! Thank you for all the fabulous information.

  3. I have been waiting to post this one for some time now. I LOVED doing this post. I enjoyed the research. It all started with wanting to know the back ground to the painting.

    Which led to the bigger question of what is the Eve of St Anges? I was shocked to say the least. Poor girls I swear they had back bones and stood firm and they were brutally attacked for their convictions.

    Thank you! I was hoping someone else would enjoy this post besides me and look who it drew in.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...