Agnese holding Montepulciano
Fresco by unknown painter, c.1690, Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta
Today is the feast of Santa Agnese da Montepulciano, who was born around 1270 and who died in 1137. A later tradition fixes her day of death – her dies natalis – more specifically to January 28, 1268 (1). She was born into a wealthy family in Gracchiano-Vecchio, but – in a move very common among zealously religious men and women of the time, and in keeping with the expectations of a saint - she renounced her family and its wealth in favour of the religious life. At Montepulciano she entered an order of mendicant tertiaries – lay religious men and women who were connected to the mendicant orders – which was known as sisters of the sack, a name deriving from their coarse clothing (2). Around the age of twenty, she was assigned together with a senior sister Margherita to a new foundation in Proceno where she embarked on what we might call an administrative career which moved her from housekeeper to bursar and superior of the foundation. While at Proceno, Agnese became known for her austere life, her visions of Christ and – according to some sources – miracles that multiplied loaves and fishes, and that brought the infirm back to health (3). On account of her signs of holiness, she was eventually called back to Montepulciano, recognised as more than a common tertiary.
The Angelic communion of Agnese da Montepulciano
Agnes with the lamb and the lily, both symbols of virginity
Mosaic of unknown date, Chiesa di Sant'Agnese in Montepulciano
Back in Montepulciano she founded the convent of Santa Maria Nuova, and according to tradition this convent was situated on the premises of an old brothel (4). While this might be true, it is here tempting to suggest that this particular detail is a clever way of typologically connect Agnese with her namesake Agnes, who was put in a brothel to lose her virginity by her pagan suitor, but who escaped unscathed and untouched by angelic intervention. Such a connection is inevitable, and – although I haven’t read the text in question – might be something her Dominican hagiographer Raimondo da Capua, himself considered a beatus, would be tempted to emphasise and expand upon in the vita of Agnese which he wrote in 1366.
The convent of Santa Maria Nuova was consecrated in 1306, and Agnese brought it under the control of the Dominican order, apparently in 1311 (5), and this was ostensibly done to provide a more secure management for the convent, and Agnese herself became the prioress. Under her guidance, the convent prospered and her saintly fame – her fama sanctitatis – reported of visions and cures effected through her (6). She died at forty-nine after a prolonged illness, and was canonised in 1726 by Benedict XIII.
Chiesa di Sant Agnese, Montepulciano
Courtesy of Wikimedia
The angelic communion of Agnese da Montepulciano,
High-altar relief, the Dominican church of Friesach, 19th century
Courtesy of Bistum Augsburg
Although Agnese was canonised at a very late date relative to her historical life, she was still held to be a saint by a significant number of people and celebrated throughout the Middle Ages. Agnese belonged to a group of religious women who became increasingly popular as objects of veneration from the late thirteenth century onwards, namely women who embraced a mendicant spirituality that was more active than that professed by older, established orders such as the Benedictines, the Augustinians and the Cistercians. At the time when Agnese entered the religious life, there had already been established a number of female religious who were venerated as saints and who were connected to the mendicant orders. The first generation was represented by Clare of Assisi (d.1253), the sister of Francis and the founder of the Poor Clares, and towards the end of the thirteenth century the female mendicant sainthood was dominated by contemplative visionaries and mystics (7). Agnese was, for instance, an early contemporary of Margherita da Cortona (d.1297), and would herself feature in the visions of the later Catherine da Siena (d.1380) who herself became a saint in 1461 and who became an epitome of the mystical, mendicant sanctity of the later Middle Ages (8).
The Virgin with Catherine of Siena, Rosa of Lima (with the Christ-child) and Agnes,
Giambattista Tiepolo, 1747-48, Jesuit church of Santa Maria del Rosario, Venice
For similar saints, see:
Fina da San Gimignano
Margherita da Cortona
Verdiana da Castelfiorentino
2) Farmer 2004: 8
4) Farmer 2004: 8
5: https://www.heiligenlexikon.de/BiographienA/Agnes_von_Montepulciano.htm. 6) Farmer 2004: 8
7) Vauchez 2005: 376ff
8: Vauchez 2005: 121
Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004
Vauchez, André, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 2005
Schäfer, Joachim, Ökumenishces Heligenlexicon: https://www.heiligenlexikon.de/BiographienA/Agnes_von_Montepulciano.htm
Relief from Friesach: http://www.bistum-augsburg.de/index.php/bistum/Heilige-des-Tages/Heilige/AGNES-VON-MONTEPULCIANO