St Agnes and the Allegory of Chastity

Hail Holy Lady Charity, 
may the Lord save you with your sister, Holy Obedience! 
O all you most holy virtues, 
may the Lord, from whom you proceed and come, save you! 

from the Praises of the Virtues of St Francis

The Allegory of Chastity is part of the ceiling of the Glorification of St Francis by the fresco artist known as ‘The Master of St Francis’ in the Lower Basilica of San Francesco. It may, also, be a portrait of Agnes.

S Castitas, Holy Chastity, is enclosed in a white tower. Behind her is the profile of a Sacraments House or Tabernacle before which she is praying. Angels offer Chastity a crown and a palm or bunch of olive leaves. Chastity’s enclosure stands on the foundations of S Munditia and S Fortitudo. Munditia is that Courtesy which is a gift rooted in joyful generosity and Fortitudo is Courage

Beneath the tower and before its castle, the sacrament of baptism is shown. Baptism is everyone’s way to new life and freedom from sin. On the left Francis welcomes a layman, a friar and a Poor Clare. A haloed figure offers the Poor Clare a cross and behind Francis stands a man with a shield and a scourge; he too has a halo for he is one of three similar figures having a crown on their shields: allegorically they stand for Self-discipline and they wear the whole armor of faith proposed by St Paul (Ephesians 6:10-17) with which they defend the Castle of Chastity. The two angels are baptising Man in what seems to suggest a tomb as much as a font - again St Paul explains it: we are buried with him through baptism into death that even as Christ was raised to new life through the glory of the Father, so we might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4).

Behind the left hand angel stand two attendants who hold, not the neophytes white garments, but the Franciscan habit. To the right Poenitentia, a winged friar, with other defenders of the castle of Chastity, drives away not only the demon of Lust, false Amor: pig-faced and bedecked with hearts and arrows, but Death itself, Mors, depicted as a black skeleton. Chastity is, of course, the vow to the Kingdom of heaven where there is no marrying or giving in marriage.


The same artist seems also to have painted the ceiling in the basilica of Santa Chiara which includes St Agnes of Assisi and St Agnes of Rome. The distinctive red, black and white cross motif frames the tower-like shrines in which the virgin saints stand. The motif is repeated again on the lovely portrait of St Agnes on the side wall, by a different hand. This shows the three crowns which, according to the Chronicle of the Twenty Four Generals, an angel offered Agnes to reward her ceaseless prayer of intercession for the Church. The picture of Agnes in the Church of San Giorgio, of course, shows her holding a palm or olive branch.

A final similarity! In the Allegory of Chastity in San Francesco, Francis welcomes the representatives of the three orders to the kingdom of the castle of Chastity, but it is only to the Poor Clare that the second figure offers the distinctively shaped cross. It strongly resembles the reliquary cross of Clare and Agnes kept at Santa Chiara and, according to one Italian art scholar, is the work of the same artist as the ceiling fresco! 

The Allegory of Chastity from the Basilica of St Francis
Saint Agnes of Assisi from the roof of the Basilica of St Clare. Her companion (not shown is) St Agnes the Martyr. The other two panels are Our Lady and St Clare.
The tower of the Castle of Chastity
from the Allegory of Chastity in the Basilica of St Francis
St Agnes and St Clare from an early triptych in San Giorgio