The face of St Agnes

What did Agnes look like?

Her face was a mystery to us - like her life. We knew she was Clare's sister, and that was about it. It did not, at first, occur to us to think that you don't get canonised by kinship and that Agnes had made a unique gift to the Franciscan family and the Church. As we learned more about her and became increasingly fascinated by her story we wanted to make a banner of her.
Some time ago, we had been given a scholarly book in Italian about the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi by Marino Bigaroni, Hans-Rudolf Meier & Elvio Lunghi in it, a black & white reproduction showed a damaged fresco with the face of our sister, on the right:

We were fascinated, and asked our sisters at the Protomonastary if they possibly had a colour close up. Generous in their own enthusiasm, they sent one by return of email:


Our Sister artist was immediately struck by the resemblance to the figure in another fresco - this time at San Damiano:

The faces in this picture are full of character and some of them of elderly sisters, but kneeling ahead of the others, between Clare and the community is a younger face, almost certainly intended to be that of Agnes. It is in profile, and our sister lined it up with the threequarter face from the first fresco:

Our sisters at the Protomonastery had also sent us a photograph of Agnes' relics, including her scull. The jawbone is missing - and, as with any scull, a certain amount of artistic discretion has to be allowed for the turn of the nose and the moulding of the mouth. But, its proportion matches with the frescos conspicuously in the distinctive shaping of the brow and eye line!

 

Our Sister artist at this point made an observation: that the original fresco artists had given Agnes a longish nose - however, one perfectly possible in human physiognomy, but the mouth was too small for an adult face and either resembled a stylistic flourish on the part of the Santa Chiara fresco artist, or was an attempt to represent a characteristic expression of lips pursed in mild amusement!

The fresco had apparently been done considerably after Agnes' death - but possibly still within the lifetime of those who had entered as young sisters shortly before her death. The art department then said that - had they been hired to do the job - they would have asked the surviving sisters to point out to them someone who, in their estimation, looked like Agnes and worked from that face.

 

So, with Dear Mother's permission, our artist began to look for a face that resembled that of Agnes. The faces of two actresses on the listing of the Hundred Most Beautiful Women had some characteristics in common with our Saint. Ms Rachel Weitz had the facial structure from the cheek bone to the chin and Mme Juliette Binoche had the structure of forehead, eye line and the bridge of the nose - and the resemblance to Agnes' scull formation was marked, but her face and nose were too short and her mouth too wide for the original! Without any specialist computer art programmes, our sister arbitrarily adjusted Mme Binoche's features to match those of the three source pictures, but without bunching the mouth unrealistically, as below:

From the superimposition of these four sources, sister then produced an original sketch.

The final banner was worked in the medium of silk painting. This technique is very volatile and has to be done at high speed. The original Fresco painter who did St Agnes in Santa Chiara would have had about twenty hours to paint the area he had plastered. Our silk painting team had about twenty minutes during which the silk of the face area was 'open'. They prayed and set going!

The final banner, which is 718 x 65 cm, shows St Agnes between the wings of the angel with the tree crowns floating toward her:

Some observations
Fingerprints are all different; billions of people, and no two thumbs alike! Faces are also unique; looking for an Agnes look-alike was hard work, even among a hundred faces, all of which were thought beautiful by someone. 

The expression on the face of a person you love, which is so essentially 'them' is often uncapturable. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Rossetti painted his wife, Lizzie, repeatedly in his pictures, yet those who knew her said that Millais' portrait of her as Ophelia was the only one that truly looked like her. All we really have of our sister Agnes is one passionate letter, the account of an experience in prayer and the testimony of those who asked her prayers after her departure from this life.

Afterthought! The scenes on the Dossal Icon of St Clare at Santa Chiara accurately show Clare with blonde hair and depict Agnes as a redhead!

Credits: Most of the photos on this page were taken by our Sisters in Assisi or ourselves and our debt to Dr Elvio Lunghi we have acknowleged. The photos of the two ladies who unconsciously assisted us were in the public domain.