This, past Sunday, January 21st, was the Feast of St Agnes.
Early and Eastern images portray Agnes without attributes, and even as late as this 9th-century Roman mosaic, she is pictured as simply a generic virgin martyr (see example).
But as early as the 6th century she begins to be portrayed with a lamb, as in the second picture (click to view the full image). The lamb becomes the attribute most commonly used to identify her. This is because her name is so close to the Latin agnus, "lamb," which is additionally a reference to Christ, the Agnus Dei or "Lamb of God" of the Christian liturgy and John 1:29-31. The picture from 6th century Ravenna further emphasizes this symbolism by giving the lamb a halo.
Besides the lamb and the palm branch, Agnes may be portrayed with the sword of her martyrdom or standing on the flames that parted in her story. Additionally, her portraits sometimes add an open book.
The sculpture below by Ercole Ferrata is not exactly St. Agnes's death because in the legend the fire is miraculously quenched and the saint dies later.
This is one of a series of articles written to highlight the great feasts and the saints of the Roman Canon. All are connected to a single opening essay, in which I set out principles by which we might create a canon of art for Roman Rite churches, and a schema that would guide the placement of such images in a church. (Read it here.) In these, I plan to cover the key elements of images of the Saints of the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer I, and the major feasts of the year. I have created the tag Canon of Art for Roman Rite to group these together, should any be interested in seeing these articles as they accumulate.
For the fullest presentation of the principles of sacred art for the liturgy, enroll in Pontifex University's Masters of Sacred Arts program at www.Pontifex.University.