Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ars Animalis | The Lamb of St. Agnes

"It is all very romantic and torrid and lush, with marvelous moments and imagery. It is imbued with the revival of romantic, courtly love which was coming back into vogue in the early 19th century." -- Father John Zuhlsdorf on John Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes"

[Animals were there at the beginning of art. But how did we get from Chauvet to "Dogs Playing Poker" and beyond? That's one of the questions 13.7 will be asking with this month's series, "Ars Animalis"—art of the animals.]

"St. Agnes' Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith."

In his 1819 long poem "The Eve of St. Agnes," the English poet John Keats described the traditional Catholic ritual that was performed by young girls on January 20, the day before the feast day of the patron saint of virgins, Agnes of Rome, who was sentenced to death by the Roman prefect Sempronius after she refused to marry his son. She died a martyr at the age of twelve or thirteen on January 21, 304. Agnes is buried beneath the high altar in the church of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura in Rome.

The name "Agnes" is a Latinized form of the feminine Greek adjective "hagnē" meaning "chaste, sacred or pure." In art, Agnes is depicted with a lamb, as her name is similar to "agnus," the Latin word for "lamb." This oil painting, by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán, was created between 1635 and 1642. It is housed in the São Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil. He also painted this work, Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), in the beginning of the 17th century:

According to superstition, a girl would be able to see her future husband in a dream if she performed a particular ritual on the eve of St. Agnes, which involved going to bed without supper and lying naked with her hands under the pillow while looking up to the heavens. Her future husband would appear in a dream, kiss her and have a feast with her.

In Keats' poem, a young girl named Madeleine performs the ritual, welcoming her lover Porphyro into her sleeping chamber before both flee their warring families into the uncertain future of the dark winter outside.

Read the entire poem here.

Gerolamo Frescobaldi's "Fiori Musicali" was composed in the same year that Zurbarán started painting Saint Agnes. [Click here to listen.]

Franz Schubert's "Trout Quintet" was composed in the same year as Keats' "Eve of St. Agnes." [Click here to listen.]

  • Tell Canada to stop the slaughter of healthy rare heritage Shropshire sheep. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has elected to destroy a healthy flock of rare heritage breed Shropshire sheep at Wholearth Farmstudio, a Northumberland County farm that conserves heritage livestock genetics. If the 44 animals are killed, the breed will be several steps closer to extinction with only 107 registered breeding females, 38 ewe lambs and 16 rams remaining in Canada. (
  • Make compassion a part of the Easter season, sponsor a rescued sheep in need (Farm Sanctuary)
  • Get a free vegetarian starter kit (PETA)
  • Follow 13.7 Billion Years on Twitter

image: Saint Agnes, by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1635-1642, oil on canvas, São Paulo Museum of Art, São Paulo, Brazil (Wikimedia Commons)

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