Agatha of Sicily

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For communities named after St. Agatha, see Sainte-Agathe.

Saint Agatha of Sicily
Sebastiano del Piombo 001.jpg
Saint Agatha and her breasts being tortured under tongs
Virgin and Martyr
Born c. 231[1]
Catania or Palermo, Sicily
Died c. 251
Catania, Sicily
Honored in
Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Churches
Oriental Orthodoxy
Canonized Pre-congregation by tradition confirmed by Gregory I
Feast February 5
Attributes shears, tongs, breasts on a plate
Patronage Sicily; bellfounders; breast cancer; bakers; Catania, Sicily; against fire;[2] earthquakes; eruptions of Mount Etna; fire; jewelers; martyrs; natural disasters; nurses; Palermo, Sicily; rape victims; San Marino; single laywomen; sterility; torture victims; volcanic eruptions; nurses; wet nurses; Zamarramala, Spain
Controversy Rejection to worship Roman Emperors, forced prostitution, rape and conflict to maintain virginity

Saint Agatha of Sicily (born: 231 AD - died: 251 AD) is a Christian saint and virgin martyress. Her memorial is on 5 February. Agatha[3] was born at Catania, Sicily, and she was martyred in approximately 251. She is one of seven women, who along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, are commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.[4]

She is the patron saint of Catania, Molise, Malta, San Marino and Zamarramala, a municipality of the Province of Segovia in Spain. She is also the patron saint of breast cancer patients, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders, bakers, fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna.

Early history[edit]

Agatha is buried at the Badia di Sant'Agata, Catania.[5] She is listed in the late 6th-century Martyrologium Hieronymianum associated with Jerome,[6] and the Synaxarion, the calendar of the church of Carthage, ca. 530.[7] Agatha also appears in one of the carmina of Venantius Fortunatus.[8] Two early churches were dedicated to her in Rome,[9] notably the Church of Sant'Agata dei Goti in via Mazzarino, a titular church with apse mosaics of ca. 460 and traces of a fresco cycle,[10] overpainted by Gismondo Cerrini in 1630. In the 6th century the church was adapted to Arian Christianity, hence its name "Saint Agatha of Goths", and later reconsecrated by Gregory the Great, who confirmed her traditional sainthood. Agatha is also depicted in the mosaics of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, where she appears, richly dressed, in the procession of female martyrs along the north wall. Her image forms an initial I in the Sacramentary of Gellone, from the end of the 8th century.

Life[edit]

One of the most highly venerated virgin martyrs of Christian antiquity, Agatha was put to death during the persecution of Decius (250-253) in Catania, Sicily, for her steadfast profession of faith.[6]

Her written legend[11] comprises "straightforward accounts of interrogation, torture, resistance, and triumph which constitute some of the earliest hagiographic literature",[12] and are reflected in later recensions, the earliest surviving one being an illustrated late 10th-century passio bound into a composite volume[13] in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, originating probably in Autun, Burgundy; in its margin illustrations Magdalena Carrasco detected Carolingian or Late Antique iconographic traditions.[14]

Although the martyrdom of St. Agatha is authenticated, and her veneration as a saint had even in antiquity spread beyond her native place, there is no reliable information concerning the details of her death.[6]

According to Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea of ca. 1288,[15] having dedicated her virginity to God,[16] fifteen year old Agatha, from a rich and noble family, rejected the amorous advances of the low-born Roman prefect Quintianus, who then persecuted her for her Christian faith.[17] He sent Agatha to Aphrodisia, the keeper of a brothel.

Saint Peter Healing Agatha, by the Caravaggio-follower Giovanni Lanfranco, ca 1614

The madam finding her intractable, Quinitianus sends for her, argues, threatens, and finally has her put in prison. Among the tortures she underwent was the cutting off of her breasts. After further dramatic confrontations with Quintianus, represented in a sequence of dialogues in her passio that document her fortitude and steadfast devotion. Saint Agatha was then sentenced to be burned at the stake, but an earthquake saved her from that fate; instead, she was sent to prison where St. Peter the Apostle appeared to her and healed her wounds.[18] Saint Agatha died in prison, according to the Legenda Aurea in "the year of our Lord two hundred and fifty-three in the time of Decius, the emperor of Rome."

Osbern Bokenham, A Legend of Holy Women, written in the 1440s, offers some further detail.[19]

Veneration[edit]

Catania's duomo

Catania Cathedral (Cattedrale di Sant'Agata) is dedicated to Saint Agatha.

According to Maltese tradition, during the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius (AD 249-251), Agatha, together with some of her friends, fled from Sicily, and took refuge in Malta. Some historians believe that her stay on the island was rather short, and she spent her days in a rock hewn crypt at Rabat, praying and teaching the Christian Faith to children. After some time, Agatha returned to Sicily, where she faced martyrdom. Agatha was arrested and brought before Quintanus, praetor of Catania, who condemned her to torture and imprisonment. The crypt of St. Agatha is an underground basilica, which from early ages was venerated by the Maltese. At the time of St. Agatha's stay, the crypt was a small natural cave which later on, during the 4th or 5th century, was enlarged and embellished.[20]

Patronage[edit]

Saint Agatha's breasts sculpted in the fortification walls, Mons, Var

She is the patron saint of Catania, Sorihuela del Guadalimar (Spain), Molise, San Marino and Malta.

Saint Agatha is a patron saint of Malta, where in 1551 her intercession through a reported apparition to a Benedictine nun is said to have saved Malta from Turkish invasion.[20]

Agatha is the patron saint of bell-founders because of the shape of her severed breasts,[17] and also of bakers, whose loaves were blessed at her feast day. More recently, she has been venerated as patron saint of breast cancer patients.

She is claimed as the patroness of Palermo. The year after her death, the stilling of an eruption of Mt. Etna was attributed to her intercession. As a result, apparently, people continued to ask her prayers for protection against fire.[21]

Iconography[edit]

Saint Agatha is often depicted iconographically carrying her excised breasts on a platter, as by Bernardino Luini's Saint Agatha (1510–15) in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, in which Agatha contemplates the breasts on a standing salver held in her hand.

Legacy[edit]

Burial of St Agatha, by Giulio Campi, 1537

Basques have a tradition of gathering on Saint Agatha's eve (Santa Ageda bezpera in Basque) and going round the village. Homeowners can choose to hear a song about her life, accompanied by the beats of their walking sticks on the floor or a prayer for those deceased in the house. After that, the homeowner donates food to the chorus.[22] This song has varying lyrics according to the local tradition and the Basque language. An exceptional case was that of 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, when a version appeared that in the Spanish language praised the Soviet ship Komsomol, which had sunk while carrying Soviet weapons to the Second Spanish Republic.

An annual festival to commemorate the life of Saint Agatha takes place in Catania, Sicily, from February 3 to 5. The festival culminates in a great all-night procession through the city for which hundreds of thousands of the city's residents turn out.

St. Agatha's Tower is a former Knight's stronghold located in the north west of Malta. The seventeenth-century tower served as a military base during both World Wars and was used as a radar station by the Maltese army.[20]

Agatha in art[edit]

Agatha is a featured figure on Judy Chicago's installation piece The Dinner Party, being represented as one of the 999 names on the Heritage Floor.[23]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ D'Arrigo, Santo. Il Martirio di Santa Agata (Catania) 1985
  2. ^ Catholic Culture
  3. ^ Latinized form of Greek Αγαθη (Agathe), derived from Greek αγαθος, agathos, "good" (Behind the Name: the etymology and history of first names); Jacobus de Voragine, taking etymology in the Classical tradition, as a text for a creative excursus, made of Agatha one symbolic origin in agios, "sacred" + Theos, "God", and another in a-geos", "without Earth", virginally untainted by earthly desires ("Agatha", III.15).
  4. ^ Attwater, Donald; John, Catherine Rachel (1993). The Penguin Dictionary of Saints (3rd edition ed.). New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-051312-4. 
  5. ^ D'Arrigo 1985, p. 15; the present rebuilding of the ancient foundation is by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1767).
  6. ^ a b c Kirsch, Johann Peter. "St. Agatha." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 25 Apr. 2013
  7. ^ W.H. Frere, Studies in Roman Liturgy: 1. The Kalendar (London, 1930), p 94f.
  8. ^ Carmen VIII, 4, De Virginitate, noted by Liana De Girolami Cheney, "The Cult of Saint Agatha" Woman's Art Journal 17.1 (Spring - Summer 1996:3-9) p. 3.
  9. ^ Sant'Agata in via della Lugaretta, Trastevere, and Sant'Agata dei Goti, (Touring Club Italiano, Roma e dintorni [Milan, 1965], pp 444, 315).
  10. ^ (date in TCI, Roma e dintorni; a letter from Pope Hadrian I (died 795) to Charlemagne remarks that Gregory (died 604) ordered the church adorned with mosaics and frescos (Cheney 1996 note 5).
  11. ^ Acta Sanctorum IV, February vol. I (new ed. Paris, 1863) pp 599-662
  12. ^ Magdalena Elizabeth Carrasco, "The early illustrated manuscript of the Passion of Saint Agatha (Paris, Bibl. Nat., MS lat. 5594)", Gesta 24 (1985), p. 20.
  13. ^ The volume comprising texts of various places and dates was probably compiled when it was in the collection of Jean-Baptiste Colbert from which it entered the French royal collection.
  14. ^ Carrasco 1985, pp 19-32.
  15. ^ "Agatha", III.15.
  16. ^ Tertullian, De virginibus velandis ("On the veiling of virgins") makes the distinction between virgins of men and virgins of God, consecrated to Christ.
  17. ^ a b Fabio, Michelle. "Feast of Saint Agatha in Catania, Sicily", Italy magazine, 2 February 2009
  18. ^ Stracke, J.R., "Saint Agatha of Sicily", Georgia Regents University, Augusta Georgia
  19. ^ Osbern Bokenham, (Sheila Delany, tr.) A Legend of Holy Women (University of Notre Dame) 1992, pp 157-67.
  20. ^ a b c "St. Agatha", St. Agatha's Crypt, Catacombs & Museum
  21. ^ Foley O.F.M., Leonard. Saint of the Day, (revised by Pat McCloskey O.F.M.), Franciscan Media, ISBN 978-0-86716-887-7
  22. ^ J. Etxegoien, Orhipean, Gure Herria ezagutzen (Xamar) 1996 [in Basque].
  23. ^ "Agatha". Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Agatha. Brooklyn Museum. 2007. Retrieved 17 December 2011. 

External links[edit]