Saint Agnes (21 January 304) was a Roman virgin and martyr who refused to marry the son of the prefect Sempronius because she was betrothed to Jesus Christ. She was then sentenced to death for refusing to acknowledge the pagan goddess Vesta. After performing a miracle in saving the life of her suitor, Sempronius the younger, she was deemed to be a sorceress and was placed on a pyre to be burnt alive. Unaffected by the flames she eventually died by the sword of an executioner, as depicted here, dressed in a virginal white robe.
This picture is immediately recognizable as an early work by Giulio Cesare Procaccini, perhaps dating from as early as 1602-4 and almost certainly no later than 1607 when the artist completed his fresco decorations in S. Maria presso S. Celso, Milan. The placement of the action close to the picture plane, the frontal pose of the saint and the vigorous naturalism of the figures, firmly modeled with strong, bold primary colors, reminds us that Procaccini had not forgotten his Emilian roots. His starting point was probably Camillo Procaccini's interpretation of the same subject painted for the Duomo, Milan, in 1590-91, now the Palazzo Borromeo, Isola Bella (N. Neilson, Camillo Procaccini. Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1979 fig. 37). In Camillo's painting one finds the same emotional intensity and baroque emphasis, with a striking angel plunging from the sky and holding the martyr's crown and palm. One senses too the inspiration of Cerano; indeed Giulio Cesare's figure of Saint Agnes may be compared with the figure of the same saint, holding a lamb and martyr's palm, in Cerano's altarpiece at Villaguardi, dating from 1600 (M. Rosci, Il Cerano, Milan, 2000, no 43).
The figure of Saint Agnes in the present painting recalls the figure of the same saint in a work attributed to Procaccini, Assumption of the Virgin in S. Bartolomeo, Como, which is possibly a little earlier in date. The flying angel, with his twisted body conveying a strong sense of lateral movement, is almost a reverse image of the angel in Procaccini's Agony in the Garden (Private collection, Milan) may also date from the middle of the first decade. Moreover, both angels are close to the angels in the frescoed ceilings by both Procaccini and Cerano executed at S. Maria presso S. Celso c. 1602-7.