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Agatha of Sicily

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Agatha of Sicily
Depiction of Saint Agatha's martyrdom by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1520
Virgin and martyr
Bornc. 231[1]
Catania, Sicilia, Roman Empire
Diedc. 251
Catania, Sicilia, Roman Empire
Venerated in
CanonizedPre-congregation by tradition confirmed by Pope Gregory I
Feast5 February
Attributespincers, breasts on a plate[3]

Agatha[a] of Sicily (c. 231 – 251 AD) is a Christian saint. Her feast is on 5 February. Agatha was born in Catania, part of the Roman Province of Sicily, and was martyred c. 251. She is one of several virgin martyrs who are commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.[7]

Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, Molise, Malta, San Marino, Gallipoli in Apulia,[b] and Zamarramala, a municipality of the Province of Segovia in Spain. She is also the patron saint of breast cancer patients, rape victims, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders, and bakers, and is invoked against fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna.

Early history


Agatha is buried at the Badia di Sant'Agata, Catania.[c] She is listed in the late-6th-century Martyrologium Hieronymianum associated with Jerome,[10] and the Synaxarion, the calendar of the church of Carthage, c. 530.[11] Agatha also appears in one of the carmina of Venantius Fortunatus.[12]

Two early churches were dedicated in her honor in Rome, Sant'Agata in Trastevere and notably the Church of Sant'Agata dei Goti in Via Mazzarino,[13] a titular church with apse mosaics of c. 460 and traces of a fresco cycle,[d] overpainted by Gismondo Cerrini in 1630. In the 6th century AD, the church was adapted to Arianism, 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 in 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, which dates from the end of the 8th century.



One of the most highly venerated virgin martyrs of Christian antiquity, Agatha was put to death during the Decian persecution (250–253) in Catania, Sicily, for her determined profession of faith.[10]

Her written legend[15] comprises "straightforward accounts of interrogation, torture, resistance, and triumph which constitute some of the earliest hagiographic literature",[16] and are reflected in later recensions, the earliest surviving one being an illustrated late-10th-century passio bound into a composite volume[e] in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, originating probably in Autun, Burgundy; in its margin illustrations Magdalena Carrasco detected Carolingian or Late Antique iconographic traditions.[17]

Agatha in front of the judge as depicted in a stained glass window from 1515 in Notre-Dame, Saint-Lô[18]

According to the 13th-century Golden Legend (III.15) by Jacobus de Voragine, 15-year-old Agatha, from a rich and noble family, made a vow of virginity and rejected the amorous advances of the Roman prefect Quintianus, who thought he could force her to turn away from her vow and marry him. His persistent proposals were consistently spurned by Agatha. This was during the persecutions of Decius, so Quintianus, knowing she was a Christian, reported her to the authorities. Quintianus himself was governor of the district.[19]

Quintianus expected Agatha to give in to his demands when faced with torture and possible death, but Agatha simply reaffirmed her belief in God by praying: "Jesus Christ, Lord of all, you see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am. I am your sheep: make me worthy to overcome the devil." To force her to change her mind, Quintianus sent Agatha to Aphrodisia, the keeper of a brothel, and had her imprisoned there; however, the punishment failed, with Agatha remaining a Christian.[20]

Quintianus sent for Agatha again, arguing with her and threatening her, before finally having her imprisoned and tortured. She was stretched on a rack to be torn with iron hooks, burned with torches, and whipped. Her breasts were torn off with tongs.

St Agatha as depicted in a stained glass window in Rouen Cathedral

After further dramatic confrontations with Quintianus, represented in a sequence of dialogues in her passio that document her fortitude and steadfast devotion, Agatha was then sentenced to be burnt at the stake; however, an earthquake prevented this from happening, and she was instead sent to prison, where St. Peter the Apostle appeared to her and healed her wounds.[21]

Agatha died in prison, probably in the year 251 according to the Legenda Aurea. Although the martyrdom of Agatha is authenticated, and her veneration as a saint had spread beyond her native place even in antiquity, there is no reliable information concerning the details of her death.[10]

Osbern Bokenam, A Legend of Holy Women, written in the 1440s, offers some further detail.[22]



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 Christianity to children. After some time, Agatha returned to Sicily, where she faced martyrdom. Agatha was arrested and brought before Quintianus, praetor of Catania, who condemned her to torture and imprisonment.[23]

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.[23]

After the Reformation era, Agatha was retained in the calendar of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer with her feast on 5 February. Several Church of England parish churches are dedicated in her honor.

A feast day to honor Agatha on 5 February was given final authorization in the Episcopal Church in 2022.[24]

The translation of her relics is commemorated on 10 March and 17 August.[25]

Festival of Saint Agatha in Catania


The Festival of Saint Agatha in Catania is a major festival in the region, it takes place during the first five days of February. The Catania Cathedral (also known as Cattedrale di Sant'Agata) is dedicated in her honor.


Saint Agatha's breasts sculpted in the fortification walls at Mons, Var in the south of France

Saint Agatha is the patron saint of rape victims, breast cancer patients, wet nurses, and bellfounders (due to the shape of her severed breasts). She is also considered to be a powerful intercessor when people suffer from fires. Her feast day is celebrated on 5 February.

She is also 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.[23]

She became the patron saint of the Republic of San Marino after Pope Clement XII restored the independence of the state on her feast day of 5 February 1740.[26]

She is also the patron saint of Catania, Sorihuela del Guadalimar (Spain), Molise, San Marino and Kalsa, a historical quarter of Palermo.

She is claimed as the patroness of Palermo. The year after her death, the stilling of an eruption of Mount Etna was attributed to her intercession. As a result, apparently, people continued to ask her prayers for protection against fire.[27]

In Switzerland, Agatha is considered the patron saint of fire services.

In the United Kingdom, Agatha is the patron saint of bell ringers in service of the Catholic Church.[28]


Minne di Sant'Agata, a typical Sicilian sweet shaped as a breast, representing the cut breasts of Saint Agatha

Saint Agatha is often depicted iconographically carrying her excised breasts on a platter, as in Bernardino Luini's Saint Agatha (1510–1515) in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, in which Agatha contemplates the breasts on a standing salver held in her hand.

The tradition of making shaped pastry on the feast of St. Agatha, such as Agatha bread or buns, or so-called Minne di Sant'Agata ("Breasts of St. Agatha") or Minni di Virgini ("Breasts of the virgin"), is found in many countries.



The Basque people have a tradition of gathering on Saint Agatha's Eve (Basque: Santa Ageda bezpera) 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 the household's deceased. After that, the homeowner donates food to the chorus.[29] 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 3 to 5 February. The festival culminates in an all-night procession through the city.[30]

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.[23]

St. Agatha is also commemorated in literature. The Italian poet Martha Marchina wrote an epigram in Musa Posthuma that commemorates her martyrdom. In it, Marchina characterizes Agatha as powerful and she reclaims that power because she has become more beautiful through her wounds.[31]

Agatha of Sicily is honored with a Lesser Feast on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America[32] on 5 February.[33]

In art


Agatha is a featured figure on Judy Chicago's 1979 installation piece The Dinner Party, being represented as one of the 999 names on the Heritage Floor.[34]

See also


Further reading

  • Of Saint Agatha in "Ælfric's Lives of Saints", by Ælfric of Eynsham London, Pub. for the Early English text society, by N. Trübner & co. (1881).
  • Kirsch, Johann Peter (1907). "St. Agatha" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  • Henry Gardiner Adams, ed. (1857). "Agatha, Saint". A Cyclopaedia of Female Biography: 12. Wikidata Q115346158.


  1. ^ 'Agatha' is the Latinized form of the Greek Ἀγαθή (Agathe), derived from the Greek ἀγαθός (agathos, meaning "good";[5] Jacobus de Voragine, taking etymology in the Classical tradition, as a text for a creative excursus, made of 'Agatha' one symbolic origin in ἅγιος (agios), "sacred", and Θεός (Theos), "God", and another in a-geos, "without Earth", meaning virginally untainted by earthly desires.[6]
  2. ^ The relics of St. Agatha, in particular her breasts, were stolen, on orders of the saint herself, and brought to Gallipoli in 1126. She is the patron of the diocese of Gallipoli, the cathedral of Gallipoli, and of the city.[8]
  3. ^ The present rebuilding of the ancient foundation was by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1767).[9]
  4. ^ The date of 460 appears 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 frescoes.[14]
  5. ^ 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.


  1. ^ D'Arrigo, Santo. Il Martirio di Santa Agata (Catania) 1985
  2. ^ February 18 / February 5. https://www.holytrinityorthodox.com/htc/orthodox-calendar/
  3. ^ Delaney, John P. (1980). Dictionary of Saints (Second ed.). Garden City, NY: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-13594-7.
  4. ^ "Saint Agatha", Catholic Culture
  5. ^ Behind the Name: the etymology and history of first names
  6. ^ ""Agatha", III.15". Archived from the original on 2014-11-03. Retrieved 2009-04-12.
  7. ^ V. L. Kennedy CSB, The Saints of the Canon of the Mass, Pontifico Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, Città del Vaticano, 1938.
  8. ^ Ravenna, Bartolomeo (1836). Memorie istoriche della città di Gallipoli (in Italian). Napoli: R. Miranda. pp. 316-326.
  9. ^ D'Arrigo 1985, p. 15
  10. ^ a b c Kirsch, Johann Peter. "St. Agatha." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 25 Apr. 2013
  11. ^ W.H. Frere, Studies in Roman Liturgy: 1. The Kalendar (London, 1930), p 94f.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Touring Club Italiano, Roma e dintorni [Milan, 1965], pp 444, 315)
  14. ^ (Cheney 1996 note 5)
  15. ^ Acta Sanctorum IV, February vol. I (new ed. Paris, 1863) pp. 599–662
  16. ^ Magdalena Elizabeth Carrasco, "The early illustrated manuscript of the Passion of Saint Agatha (Paris, Bibl. Nat., MS lat. 5594)", Gesta 24 (1985), p. 20.
  17. ^ Carrasco 1985, pp. 19–32.
  18. ^ Bey, Martine Callias; David, Véronique (2006). Les vitraux de Basse-Normandie. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes. p. 157. ISBN 2-84706-240-8.
  19. ^ "Agatha of Sicily", Saints Resource, RCL Benziger
  20. ^ "Fabio, Michelle. "Feast of Saint Agatha in Catania, Sicily", Italy magazine, 2 February 2009". Archived from the original on 30 December 2012. Retrieved 25 April 2013.
  21. ^ Stracke, J. R., "Saint Agatha of Sicily", Georgia Regents University, Augusta Georgia Archived August 13, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ Osbern Bokenham, (Sheila Delany, tr.) A Legend of Holy Women (University of Notre Dame) 1992, pp. 157–167.
  23. ^ a b c d "St. Agatha", St. Agatha's Crypt, Catacombs & Museum
  24. ^ "General Convention Virtual Binder". www.vbinder.net. Archived from the original on 2022-09-13. Retrieved 2022-07-20.
  25. ^ "Confermati i festeggiamenti agatini del 17 agosto: la Santa torna tra la gente". CataniaToday (in Italian). Retrieved 2022-08-09.
  26. ^ Nevio and Annio Maria Matteimi The Republic of San Marino: Historical and Artistic Guide to the City and the Castles, 2011, p. 23.
  27. ^ Foley O.F.M., Leonard. Saint of the Day, (revised by Pat McCloskey O.F.M.), Franciscan Media ISBN 978-0-86716-887-7
  28. ^ "The Guild of St Agatha". www.guildofstagatha.org.uk. Archived from the original on 2001-07-23. Retrieved 2021-05-31.
  29. ^ J. Etxegoien, Orhipean, Gure Herria ezagutzen (Xamar) 1996 [in Basque].
  30. ^ "Feast of Saint Agatha in Catania, Sicily", Italy magazine, 2 February 2009
  31. ^ Marchina, Martha (1662). Musa Posthuma. Rome. p. 76.
  32. ^ "Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018". Archived from the original on 2019-02-14.
  33. ^ "Agatha of Sicily". satucket.com. Retrieved 2021-04-23.
  34. ^ "Agatha". Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Agatha. Brooklyn Museum. 2007. Retrieved 17 December 2011.