The Windows of St. Agnes

The stained glass windows of St. Agnes were made in Munich by the renowned firm of Franz Zettler at the time of the neo-Gothic Church’s construction in 1904. They are unique in many respects, but they are also an unusual choice of theme for the nave of a church. Most churches have a variety of biblical themes, mysteries of the Rosary, and saints for its most visible windows. The eight windows in the nave portray only the life and martyrdom of the church’s patroness. And yet, upon deeper reflection, the windows that literally tell the story of St. Agnes reveal much about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

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(1) At 12, Agnes signs a document in which she pledges her virginity for life and her spiritual marriage to Jesus Christ. Agnes and her parents are arranged almost like the Holy Family, conveying the importance of the formation in faith she received from them. Her mother beams with joy; her father appears worried. But an important point is made by the artist: Agnes’ journey to sainthood began in a good Catholic home, the domestic church.

(2) Agnes rejects the hand of a suitor for marriage, pointing to heaven where her spouse resides. The artist reminds us that being a faithful Catholic is to reject the values of the world. Agnes, too young to be married at 12, defiantly resists the inhuman custom of child brides and remains committed to her vow of virginity.

(3) Angry at being rejected, the powerful suitor, the son of a patrician during the Christian persecutions of the emperor Diocletian (c.303 AD), has Agnes arrested and assigned to a brothel, where she was publically stripped of her clothing. The angels immediately covered her with a white garment, but not before the suitor dared to look upon her with lust. The putti-like angels in heaven shoot a bolt of lightning upon the young man, blinding him. The window warns of the power of sexuality, and the consequences of the misuse of the sexual gifts: it can destroy a person.

(4) The friends of the young man plead with the saintly Agnes to restore his sight. Agnes prays at his bedside, and the lustful suitor’s vision is restored through her intercession. Agnes, the victim of a heinous sexual crime, forgives her abuser, an extraordinary example of the calling of every Christian to “forgive those who trespass against us” and to love one’s enemies.

(5) The authorities attempt to burn Agnes at the stake, but the angels protect her and the faithful Christians who have come to pray for her from the flames; only the Roman executioners are synged. The window reminds us to believe in God’s protection for the Church even during persecution.

(6) In the dinginess of her prison cell, Agnes’ faith enables her to see the Light of Christ, calling her to her future glory in heaven. The composition is deliberately ironic: Agnes, the prisoner, is really free; her captors in the window are enslaved by the darkness.

(7) Agnes is slain in the Roman forum at 14; her face that was beautiful in the other windows is now the face of Jesus in agony on the cross. Agnes will die for the moment, but the men of power and the classical buildings will die or be in ruins soon. Agnes will live eternally.

(8) Agnes reigns in heaven with the other virgin martyrs. The invitation is there for us to do the same: to die with Christ in this world in order to rise with Him in glory in the next. –RMP