Agatha of Sicily

Last updated

Agatha of Sicily
Martirio de Santa Agueda, por Sebastiano del Piombo.jpg
Martyrdom of Saint Agatha
Virgin and Martyr
Bornc.231 [1]
Catania or Palermo, Sicily
Catania, Sicily
Venerated in
Canonized Pre-congregation by tradition confirmed by Pope Gregory I
Feast February 5
Attributes shears, tongs, breasts on a plate [2]
Patronage Sicily; bellfounders; breast cancer; bakers; Catania, Sicily; against fire; earthquakes; eruptions of Mount Etna; fire; jewelers; martyrs; natural disasters; nurses; Palermo, Sicily; rape victims; San Marino; single laywomen; sterility; torture victims; volcanic eruptions; wet nurses; Zamarramala, Spain, [3]

Agatha [lower-alpha 1] of Sicily (c.231 – 251 AD) is a Christian saint. Her memorial is on February 5. Agatha was born in Catania or Palermo, Sicily, and was martyred c.251. She is one of several virgin martyrs who are commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass. [6]


Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, Molise, Malta, San Marino, Gallipoli in Apulia, [lower-alpha 2] 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, 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. [lower-alpha 3] She is listed in the late 6th-century Martyrologium Hieronymianum associated with Jerome, [9] and the Synaxarion , the calendar of the church of Carthage, c.530. [10] Agatha also appears in one of the carmina of Venantius Fortunatus. [11]

Two early churches were dedicated to her in Rome; Sant'Agata in via della Lugaretta, Trastevere, and notably the Church of Sant'Agata dei Goti in Via Mazzarino, [12] a titular church with apse mosaics of c.460 and traces of a fresco cycle, [lower-alpha 4] 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. [9]

Her written legend [14] comprises "straightforward accounts of interrogation, torture, resistance, and triumph which constitute some of the earliest hagiographic literature", [15] and are reflected in later recensions, the earliest surviving one being an illustrated late 10th-century passio bound into a composite volume [lower-alpha 5] in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, originating probably in Autun, Burgundy; in its margin illustrations Magdalena Carrasco detected Carolingian or Late Antique iconographic traditions. [16]

Agatha in front of the judge as depicted in a stained glass window from 1515 in Notre-Dame, Saint-Lo Saint-Lo Eglise Notre-Dame Vitrail Baie 17 Jugement de sainte Agathe 2019 08 19.jpg
Agatha in front of the judge as depicted in a stained glass window from 1515 in Notre-Dame, Saint-Lô

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. [18]

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. [19]

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. Amongst the tortures she underwent was the excision of her breasts with pincers. 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. [20]

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. [9]

Osbern Bokenam, A Legend of Holy Women, written in the 1440s, offers some further detail. [21]


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 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. [22]

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 to her.

Festival of Saint Agatha in Catania

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


Saint Agatha's breasts sculpted in the fortification walls at Mons, Var in the south of France Mons Ste Agathe 919.JPG
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 February 5.

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. [22]

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 February 5, 1740. [23]

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. [24]

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. [25]


Minne di Sant'Agata
, a typical Sicilian sweet shaped as a breast, representing the cut breasts of Saint Agatha Minnuzze di sant'aita.jpg
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 us 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. [26] 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 an all-night procession through the city. [27]

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. [22]

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. [28]

Agatha of Sicily is honored with a Lesser Feast on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America [29] on February 5. [30]

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. [31]

See also


  1. 'Agatha' is the Latinized form of the Greek Ἀγαθή (Agathe), derived from the Greek ἀγαθός (agathos, meaning "good"; [4] 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. [5]
  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. [7]
  3. The present rebuilding of the ancient foundation was by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1767). [8]
  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. [13]
  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.

Related Research Articles

Catania City in Sicily, Italy

Catania is the second largest city in Sicily, after Palermo, and among the ten largest cities in Italy. It is located on Sicily's east coast, at the base of the active volcano, Mount Etna, and it faces the Ionian Sea. It is the capital of the 58-municipality region known as the Metropolitan City of Catania, which is the seventh-largest metropolitan city in Italy. The population of the city proper is 311,584, while the population of the Metropolitan City of Catania is 1,107,702.

Saint Lucy Third-fourth century Christian martyr and saint

Lucia of Syracuse (283–304), also called Saint Lucia or Saint Lucy, was a Christian martyr who died during the Diocletianic Persecution. She is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox churches. She is one of eight women explicitly commemorated by Roman Catholics in the Canon of the Mass. Her traditional feast day, known in Europe as Saint Lucy's Day, is observed by Western Christians on 13 December. Lucia of Syracuse was honored in the Middle Ages and remained a well-known saint in early modern England.

Saint Apollonia

Saint Apollonia was one of a group of virgin martyrs who suffered in Alexandria during a local uprising against the Christians prior to the persecution of Decius. According to church tradition, her torture included having all of her teeth violently pulled out or shattered. For this reason, she is popularly regarded as the patroness of dentistry and those suffering from toothache or other dental problems. French court painter Jehan Fouquet painted the scene of St. Apollonia's torture in The Martyrdom of St. Apollonia.

Cassata Type of sponge cake

Cassata or cassata siciliana is a traditional cake from Sicily, Italy. Cassata consists of round sponge cake moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese and candied fruit, a filling also used with cannoli. Cassata has a shell of marzipan, pink and green coloured icing, and decorative designs. Cassata may also refer to a Neapolitan ice cream containing candied or dried fruit and nuts.

February 5 (Eastern Orthodox liturgics)

February 4 - Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar - February 6

SantAgata de Goti, Rome Church in Rome, Italy

Sant'Agata dei Goti is a church in Rome, Italy, dedicated to the martyr Agatha of Sicily. It is the diaconia assigned to Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Festival of Saint Agatha (Catania)

The Festival of Saint Agatha is the most important religious festival of Catania, Sicily, commemorating the life of the city's patron saint, Agatha of Sicily. It takes place annually from 3 to 5 February and on 17 August. The earlier dates commemorate the martyrdom of the Catanaian saint, while the latter date celebrates the return to Catania of her remains, after these had been transferred to Constantinople by the Byzantine general George Maniaces as war booty and remained there for 86 years.

Sant'Agata may refer to:

Euplius of Catania

Euplius (Euplus) is venerated as a martyr and saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. With Saint Agatha, he is a co-patron of Catania in Sicily.

Catania Cathedral

Catania Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Agatha, is a Roman Catholic cathedral in Catania, Sicily, southern Italy. It was the seat of the Bishops of Catania until 1859, when the diocese was elevated to an archdiocese, and since then has been the seat of the Archbishops of Catania.

Basilica della Collegiata Church in Italy

The Ancient Royal and Eminent Basilica Collegiate of Our Lady of the Alms better known as Basilica della Colleggiata is a church in Catania, Sicily, southern Italy. Finished in 1794, it is an example of Sicilian Baroque.

Traditions of Italy are some set of traditions, beliefs, values, and customs that belongs within the culture of Italian people. These traditions have influenced life in Italy for centuries, and are still practiced in our modern days. Italian traditions are directly connected to Italian's ancestors, which tells us even more about Italian history.

Piazza del Duomo is the main city square in Catania, Italy, flanked by both the centers of civic and religious power.

Gallipoli Cathedral Catholic church in Apulia, Italy

The Gallipoli Cathedral, formally the Co-Cathedral Basilica of Saint Agatha the Virgin, is a Roman Catholic church located in the town of Gallipoli in Apulia, Italy. Completed in 1696, the Baroque church is a minor basilica and the co-cathedral of the Diocese of Nardò-Gallipoli.

Cassatella di santAgata

Cassatella di sant'Agata, also known as cassatina siciliana, is a traditional Sicilian pastry from Catania made during the Festival of Saint Agatha.

Sant’Agata al Borgo is a Roman Catholic church in Catania, Sicily, southern Italy. The church was initially built after the eruption of Aetna in 1669, to serve the villagers displaced by the lava flows. Damaged by the 1693 Sicily earthquake; it was rebuilt again. The interior has a single nave, decorated in frescoes in the early 18th-century by Giovanni Lo Coco, who was called “U surdu di Iaci”. The apse fresco depicts the martyrdom of Saint Agatha, the titular saint.

SantAgata la Vetere, Catania

Sant’Agata la Vetere is a Roman Catholic church located in the piazza of the same name in Catania, Sicily, southern Italy. East of church and nearby, but facing in the other direction, are two other churches venerating St Agatha of Sicily: the church of Sant'Agata al Carcere and two blocks east on Piazza Stesicoro is Sant'Agata alla Fornace, now known San Biagio.

SantAgata al Carcere, Catania

Santa Agata al Carcere, sometimes called Santo Carcere or the Carcere church is a Roman Catholic church located on Piazza Santo Carcere #7, in the city of Catania, Sicily, southern Italy. It is one of three nearly adjacent churches venerating St Agatha of Sicily in this neighborhood, the other two being Sant'Agata alla Fornace and Sant'Agata la Vetere.

San Biagio, Catania

San Biagio, previously called Sant'Agata alla Fornace or La Fornace or Carcara is a Neoclassical architecture, Roman Catholic parish church located at the western edge of the Piazza Stesicoro in the quartiere San Biagio della Calcarella, of Catania, Sicily, southern Italy. The church overlooks a portion of the ruins of the former Ancient Roman amphitheater, while behind the apse in succession are two other churches venerating St Agatha of Sicily: the church of Sant'Agata al Carcere and two blocks west facing the opposite direction is Sant'Agata la Vetere.

Badia di SantAgata

Badia di Sant'Agata or Abbey of St Agatha refers to an 18th-century Roman Catholic church and attached female convent located on Via Vittorio Emanuele #182 in the center of Catania, region of Sicily, southern Italy. The Baroque style church facade is across the street from the left transept of the Cathedral of Catania.


  1. D'Arrigo, Santo. Il Martirio di Santa Agata (Catania) 1985
  2. Delaney, John P. (1980). Dictionary of Saints (Second ed.). Garden City, NY: Doubleday. ISBN   0-385-13594-7.
  3. "Saint Agatha", Catholic Culture
  4. Behind the Name: the etymology and history of first names
  5. "Agatha", III.15
  6. V. L. Kennedy CSB, The Saints of the Canon of the Mass, Pontifico Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, Città del Vaticano, 1938
  7. Ravenna, Bartolomeo (1836). Memorie istoriche della città di Gallipoli (in Italian). Napoli: R. Miranda. pp.  316-326.
  8. D'Arrigo 1985, p. 15
  9. 1 2 3 Kirsch, Johann Peter. "St. Agatha." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 25 Apr. 2013
  10. W.H. Frere, Studies in Roman Liturgy: 1. The Kalendar (London, 1930), p 94f.
  11. Carmen VIII, 4, De Virginitate, noted by Liana De Girolami Cheney, "The Cult of Saint Agatha" Woman's Art Journal17.1 (Spring – Summer 1996:3–9) p. 3.
  12. Touring Club Italiano, Roma e dintorni [Milan, 1965], pp 444, 315)
  13. (Cheney 1996 note 5)
  14. Acta Sanctorum IV, February vol. I (new ed. Paris, 1863) pp. 599–662
  15. Magdalena Elizabeth Carrasco, "The early illustrated manuscript of the Passion of Saint Agatha (Paris, Bibl. Nat., MS lat. 5594)", Gesta24 (1985), p. 20.
  16. Carrasco 1985, pp. 19–32.
  17. Bey, Martine Callias; David, Véronique (2006). Les vitraux de Basse-Normandie. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes. p. 157. ISBN   2-84706-240-8.
  18. "Agatha of Sicily", Saints Resource, RCL Benziger
  19. "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.
  20. Stracke, J. R., "Saint Agatha of Sicily", Georgia Regents University, Augusta Georgia Archived August 13, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  21. Osbern Bokenham, (Sheila Delany, tr.) A Legend of Holy Women (University of Notre Dame) 1992, pp. 157–167.
  22. 1 2 3 "St. Agatha", St. Agatha's Crypt, Catacombs & Museum
  23. Nevio and Annio Maria Matteimi The Republic of San Marino: Historical and Artistic Guide to the City and the Castles, 2011, p. 23.
  24. Foley O.F.M., Leonard. Saint of the Day, (revised by Pat McCloskey O.F.M.), Franciscan Media ISBN   978-0-86716-887-7
  25. "The Guild of St Agatha". Retrieved 2021-05-31.
  26. J. Etxegoien, Orhipean, Gure Herria ezagutzen (Xamar) 1996 [in Basque].
  27. "Feast of Saint Agatha in Catania, Sicily", Italy magazine, February 2, 2009
  28. Marchina, Martha (1662). Musa Posthuma. Rome. p. 76.
  29. "Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018".
  30. "Agatha of Sicily". Retrieved 2021-04-23.
  31. "Agatha". Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Agatha. Brooklyn Museum. 2007. Retrieved 17 December 2011.