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E05212: A hymn (Agnes beatae virginis), almost certainly by Ambrose of Milan, is written in Latin in Milan (northern Italy) sometime after 386 for the feast day of *Agnes (virgin and martyr of Rome, S00097).

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posted on 2018-03-18, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Ambrose of Milan, Agnes beatae uirgines

Agnes beatae uirginis
natalis est, quo spiritum
caelo refudit debitum
pio sacrata sanguine;

matura martyrio fuit, [5]
matura nondum nuptiis.
Nutabat in uiris fides
cedebat et fessus senex.

Metu parentes territi
claustrum pudoris auxerant; [10]
soluit fores custodiae
fides teneri nescia.

Prodire quis nuptum putet,
sic laeta uultu ducitur,
nouas uiro ferens opes, [15]
dotata censu sanguinis.

Aras nefandi numinis
adolere taedis cogitur;
respondet: “Haud tales faces
sumpsere Christi uirgines; [20]

hic ignis exstinguit fidem,
haec flamma lumen eripit.
Hic, hic ferite! ut profluo
cruore restinguam focos.”

Percussa quam pompa tulit! [25]
Nam ueste se totam tegens
curam pudoris praestitit,
ne quis retectam cerneret.

In morte uiuebat pudor,
uultumque texerat manu, [30]
terram genu flexo petit
lapsu uerecundo cadens.

‘It is the birthday
Of the blessed virgin Agnes
On this holy day, by means of her sacred blood,
Her spirit flows back to heaven

She was old enough for martyrdom [5]
but still not old enough to wed.
Then faith was wavering in men
and the weary elder gave up.

Her parents shaken with fear
Increased the protection of her modesty; [10]
But faith, which knows no restraint,
Opened the doors of confinement.

Anyone might think a bride came forth,
She was escorted with such a joyful face,
Carrying for her groom a new wealth, [15]
enriched by the dowry of her blood

She is summoned to make a sacrifice by the torch
On the altar of the wicked deity;
She responds that Christ’s virgins
Do not take up such torches. [20]

“This fire snuffs out faith,
This fire tears away light
Strike me here, here! So that I might
Quench the fireplace with flowing blood.”

Beaten down she appeared majestic! [25]
For she covered herself completely with her clothes
Excelling in care for her modesty,
Lest anyone see her nakedness.

In her death, modesty lived,
And she covered her face with her hand, [30]
She seeks the earth with bended knees
As she modestly and gently fell.

Text: Fontaine 1992. Translation: Dunkle 2016, adapted.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Agnes, virgin and martyr of Rome : S00097

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Liturgical texts - Hymns


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Italy north of Rome with Corsica and Sardinia

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Milan Sardinia Sardinia Sardegna Sardinia

Major author/Major anonymous work

Ambrose of Milan

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Chant and religious singing

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Oral transmission of saint-related stories

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Relatives of the saint Torturers/Executioners Ecclesiastics - bishops Other lay individuals/ people


This hymn was composed to be sung as part of Agnes’ feast day celebrations. It is a very early account of her martyrdom and emphasises her youth, modesty and willingness to die to protect her chastity and faith. Many of the same details were included in two later accounts of Agnes' martyrdom: Prudentius’ hymn on Agnes, composed around 400 (E04418), and her Martyrdom, which was composed in the fifth century and falsely attributed to Ambrose (E02475). The attribution of the hymns on the martyrs to Ambrose has been questioned over the years. Yet more recent work, especially by Cécile Lanéry has argued that the manuscript witness for the hymns supports the argument that they were composed by him. Furthermore, Lanéry identifies echoes of the content of Ambrose's hymns on the Roman martyrs in several of Augustine's works (including Sermons 302, 203 and 305A, Letter 80,Treatise on John 27.12 and On Holy Virginity 44.45). She argues this is further evidence of Ambrose's authorship. The hymn for Agnes can be attributed most securely to Ambrose. It is very similar to his earlier account of Agnes’ martyrdom in On Virgins, a sermon composed around 377 which was delivered on Agnes’ feast day in Milan (see E05210). This hymn is one of several, which is attributed to Ambrose and dedicated to saints. The majority of these saints are martyrs with a special connection with Milan or, in this case, Rome. They are associated with the conflict with the Homoian/Arian Christians in Milan in the 380s, which came to a head with the conflict over the basilicas in 385 and 386 (for a full account of this conflict see the discussion on E05211). In Confessions 9.7, Augustine referred to the way Ambrose encouraged the congregation to sing together ‘in the eastern manner’ (more orientalium) during this period. Scholars have identified many motivations which led to the composition of these hymns, and it is likely they served multiple purposes. The hymns promoted a specifically Nicene form of Christianity and were likely composed by Ambrose to respond to doctrinal rivals. This is a view promoted by Brian Dunkle and Daniel Williams. The hymns on the martyrs in particular should be seen in the context of Ambrose’s use of the cult of the martyrs to bolster his own authority in a conflicted Milanese church. He also sought to connect his Nicene followers with the Roman church, in contrast to the ‘foreign’ Homoian church. Additionally, the hymns promoted a sense of unity and group identity amongst the singers, particularly in the face of a hostile Homoian sect. Michael Williams refers to this motivation as he draws parallels between the hymns and late Roman acclamations.


Edition: Fontaine, J., Ambroise de Milan: Hymnes (Paris: Cerf, 1992). Translation: Dunkle, B., "Appendix," in: Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). Further Reading: Dunkle, B., Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). Lanéry, C., Ambroise de Milan hagiographe (Paris: Institut d’Études Augustiniennes, 2008). McLynn, N., Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Williams, D., Ambrose of Milan and the End of the Arian-Nicene Conflicts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). Williams, M., The Politics of Heresy in Ambrose of Milan: Community and Consensus in Late Antique Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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