And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 20. april 2016

The Extinguished Fire - a miracle from the legend of Santa Agnese di Montepulciano

Today is the feast of Santa Agnese di Montepulciano (1268-1317). She renounced a worldly life and left a wealthy family to give herself to the service of Christ, and became a Dominican nun. (This is symbolized by the two dogs carrying torches in the portrait below, an image taken from a dream ascribed to the mother of Dominic de Guzman when pregnant with him.) She became very popular in Montepulciano and further off, and Catherine of Siena became one of her followers. For the general details of Agnese's life, I refer you to this older blogpost.

In this blogpost I wish to present you with a miracle from her vita, the hagiographical account of her life which was written by Raymond of Capua (c.1330-1399). Raymond served as rector of the monastery of Dominican nuns in Montepulciano from 1363 to 1367, and he also became the confessor of Catherine of Siena. He undertook to write a biography of Agnese, possibly inspired by his contact with nuns at Montepulciano who had themselves had contact with her around fifty years ago. Raymond might also have been impressed by the devotion to Agnese evident in the city where she was referred to as Santa Agnese. From his biography of her, we also see that he probably did think that she was indeed a vessel for God's miraculous power. At this time she had not been recognized by the papal authorities as a genuine saint, and Raymond's hagiography seeks to support her case for canonization. This was part of a recent trend within the Dominican order, that they promoted the cults of religious women from their ranks. This trend partly grew out of a genuine belief in the sanctity of these women, but it was also a way for the Dominican order to increase their own prestige.

I hope to return to Raymond of Capua's book on Agnese in later blogposts, but for now I will be content with present a miracle from the third part of Raymond's book. This part is concerned with the miracles wrought after Agnese's death, and the miracle in question comprises the sixth chapter


Agnes of Montepulciano with Dominican dogs, portrait on ceramic
Anonymous artist connected with the circle of Hernando de Valladares,
Second third of the 17th century, Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Another miracle I found often repeated in the book [possibly a compilation of miracles held at Montepulciano] , whose excellent and widespread fame I am driven and constrained to relate unto the glorification of Agnes. In the territory of Perugia there is a hamlet called by its rustic inhabitants Cigliano, in which a few months after Agnes' death, a huge fire, caused by vicious carelessness, was raging out of control. Fear seized the inhabitants because their dwellings were not made of stone but rather of strong wooden beams covered with dried rushes which could only serve as fuel for the flames. Therefore, when they saw that no natural means would save them, since a strong wind was blowing in the direction of the village, the villagers, who had learned by hearsay of the wonderful works of Agnes, ran to divine aid. They made a vow to the holy virgin that, if she delivered their cottages from being burned in the fire, they would personally visit her precious relics. What a wondrous deed, unseen in our days! As the ones making the vow afterward recounted in Montepulciano before the governors of the territory, many notaries and witnesses, under pain of oath, immediately upon utterance of the vow, the fire, robbed of its power, grew cold. It did not touch any cottage, except one which was consumed before the vow. Even more, the ones it had begun to touch it miraculously withdrew from, so that not a trace of the fire could be seen afterward. Whence the narrators of this miracle put forward this testimony with an oath, that, when the fire was raging in one cottage, it was so completely extinguished by the power of Agnes that it was as if a river of water had been poured on it. For this reason, the inhabitants, giving immense thanks to the almighty Lord and to his holy virgin, with one accord fulfilled their vow and boldly and openly proclaimed the stupendous prodigy of Agnes to everyone.
- Raymond of Capua, The Life of Saint Agnes of Montepulciano, translated by Sister Mary Martin Jacobs OP, DNS publications, 2012: 110-12

There are several things to comment on in this brief section, but I will limit myself to two items. First of all, it is interesting to note Raymond's claim that the extinguishing of fire is a miracle "unseen in our days!". The belief that saints could plead for God to aid against wildfire is an old one, and it is attributed to several saints throughout the Middle Ages. The claim that this miracle is "unseen in our days" need not imply novelty, but it does seem to suggest a certain uniqueness, at least within a historical period, which then gives an impression of Agnes having special favour in God's eyes. Miraculous rescue from fire is an old topos, and the claim that a miracle is unique in a certain contemporaneity is likewise a topos of hagiography.

The remaining element I want to comment on pertains to the translation. Unfortunately I do not have Raymond's original Latin text at hand, but there is one word which is of significant importance. This word is Sister Mary's translation "power" when talking about Agnes. The Latin original almost certainly uses "virtus" which can be translated as "power" and is often not translated as such into English, even in cases where the context suggests that to be the right translation. Here, however, I'm tempted to speculate whether "virtus" should rather be rendered as "virtue". This is because to say that the fire was extingusihed "by the power of Agnes" suggests that the agent of the miracle was Agnes herself, while in the theology of miracles the saints are not agents but vessels for the miraculous power of God. I hesitate to criticize the translation without having seen the original, but I do want to emphasize to readers that either "by" or "power" could also be understood differently.


Raymond of Capua, The Life of Saint Agnes of Montepulciano, translated by Sister Mary Martin Jacobs OP, DNS publications, 2012

Vauchez, André, Sainthood in the later Middle Ages, translated by Jean Birrell, Cambridge University Press, 2005

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