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For communities named after St. Agatha, see Sainte-Agathe.
Saint Agatha of Sicily
The Martyrdom of Saint Agatha, by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (Palazzo Pitti)[1]
Virgin and Martyr
Born c. 231[2], Catania or Palermo, Sicily
Died c. 251, Catania, Sicily
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Churches
Oriental Orthodoxy
Feast February 5
Attributes shears, tongs, breasts on a plate
Patronage Sicily; bellfounders; breast cancer; bakers; Catania, Sicily; against fire;[3] 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

Saint Agatha of Sicily (died traditionally 251) is a Christian saint. Her memorial is on 5 February. Agatha[4] was born at Catania, Sicily, and she was martyred in approximately 251. She is one of seven women, excluding the Blessed Virgin Mary, commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass.[5]


Early cult

Agatha is buried at the Badia di Sant'Agata, Catania.[6] Witnesses to her early cult,[7] aside from her mention in the Mass, are her inclusion[8] in the late 6th century Martyrologium Hieronymianum associated with the name of Jerome, the Synaxarion, the calendar of the church of Carthage, ca 530,[9] and in one of the carmina of Venantius Fortunatus.[10] Two early churches were dedicated to her in Rome,[11] 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,[12] overpainted by Gismondo Cerrini in 1630. In the 6th century the church was adapted to Arian Christianity, hence its name "Saint Agatha of the 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.


Martyrdom of St Agata, by Giovanni Pietro da Cemmo (1492 ca), Esine

Her written legend,[13] created to support her existing cultus, comprises "straightforward accounts of interrogation, torture, resistance, and triumph which constitute some of the earliest hagiographic literature",[14] and are reflected in later recensions, the earliest surviving one being an illustrated late 10th-century passio bound into a composite volume[15] in the Bibliothèque National, originating probably in Autun, Burgundy; in its margin illustrations Magdalena Carrasco detected Carolingian or Late Antique iconographic traditions.[16] According to Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea of ca 1288,[17] having dedicated her virginity to God,[18] Agatha, rich and noble rejected the amorous advances of the low-born Roman prefect, Quintianus;[19] she was persecuted by him for her Christian faith. She was given to Aphrodisia, the keeper of a brothel, and her nine daughters, but in response to their threats and entreaties to sacrifice to the idols and submit to Quintianus, she responded

My courage and my thought be so firmly founded upon the firm stone of Jesus Christ, that for no pain it may not be changed; your words be but wind, your promises be but rain, and your menaces be as rivers that pass, and how well that all these things hurtle at the foundement of my courage, yet for that it shall not move.

She attacked the Roman cult images as idols with philosophical arguments that paralleled Arnobius:

And S. Agatha answered that they were no gods, but were devils that were in the idols made of marble and of wood, and overgilt. Quintianus said: Choose one of two; or do sacrifice to our gods, or thou shalt suffer pain and torments. S. Agatha said: Thou sayst that they be gods because thy wife was such an one as was Venus, thy goddess, and thou thyself as Jupiter, which was an homicide and evil. Quintianus said: It appeareth well that thou wilt suffer torments, in that thou sayst to me villainy. S. Agatha said: I marvel much that so wise a man is become such a fool, that thou sayest of them to be thy gods, whose life thou ne thy wife will follow. If they be good I would that thy life were like unto theirs; and if thou refusest their life, then art thou of one accord with me. Say then that they be evil and so foul, and forsake their living, and be not of such life as thy gods were.

Among the tortures she underwent was the cutting off of her breasts. An apparition of Saint Peter cured her.

After further dramatic confrontations with Quintianus, represented in a sequence of dialogues in her passio that document her fortitude and steadfast devotion, her scorned admirer eventually sentenced her to death by being rolled naked on a bed of live coals, "and anon the ground where the holy virgin was rolled on, began to tremble like an earthquake, and a part of the wall fell down upon Silvain, counsellor of Quintianus, and upon Fastion his friend, by whose counsel she had been so tormented."[20]

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.[21]

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 sweetly contemplates the breasts on a standing salver held in her hand. The shape of her amputated breasts, especially as depicted in artistic renderings, gave rise to her attribution as the patron saint of bell-founders and as the patron saint of bakers, whose loaves were blessed at her feast day. More recently, she has been venerated as patron saint of breast cancer patients.

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


She is the patron saint of Catania, Molise, of San Marino, and of Malta, because her intercession is reported to have saved Malta from Turkish invasion in 1551.


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 home-owner 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.

Burial of St Agatha, by Giulio Campi, 1537

See also

  • Santa Gadea, a church of historical importance devoted to Agatha, located in Burgos.
  • The Incorruptibles, a list of Catholic saints and beati whose bodies are reported to be incorrupt; that is, the bodies did not undergo any major decay after their burial and hence are considered to be under some form of divine protection.


  1. ^ Commissioned by Ercole Ragone to celebrate his elevation to the cardinalate; his titular church was Sant'Agata dei Goti.
  2. ^ Date offered by Santo D'Arrigo, Il Martirio di Santa Agata (Catania) 1985, working back from her death in the Decian persecutions.
  3. ^ "St. Agatha is the patron saint against fire. Take this day to establish a fire escape plan for the family and to practice a family fire drill" Catholic Culture: living the Catholic Life"
  4. ^ 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).
  5. ^ Attwater, Donald; John, Catherine Rachel (1993). The Penguin Dictionary of Saints (3rd edition ed.). New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-140-51312-4.  
  6. ^ D'Arrigo 1985, p. 15; the present rebuilding of the ancient foundation is by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini (1767).
  7. ^ Salvatore Romeo, S. Agata e il suo culto (1922).
  8. ^ as martyred at Catania, 5 February 251.
  9. ^ W.H. Frere, Studies in Roman Liturgy: 1. The Kalendar (London, 1930), p 94f.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Sant'Agata in via della Lugaretta, Trastevere, and Sant'Agata dei Goti, (Touring Club Italiano, Roma e dintorni [Milan, 1965], pp 444, 315).
  12. ^ (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).
  13. ^ The texts relating to Saint Agatha are printed in Acta Sanctorum IV, February vol. I (new ed. Paris, 1863) pp 599-662
  14. ^ Magdalena Elizabeth Carrasco, "The early illustrated manuscript of the Passion of Saint Agatha (Paris, Bibl. Nat., MS lat. 5594)", Gesta 24 (1985), p. 20.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Carrasco 1985, pp 19-32.
  17. ^ "Agatha", III.15.
  18. ^ Tertullian, De virginibus velandis ("On the veiling of young women") makes the distinction between virgins of men and virgins of God, consecrated to Christ.
  19. ^ His name appears in the earliest tradition, represented by B.N. MS lat. 5594
  20. ^ The two councillors have not previously been mentioned; their appearance seems to be a remainder of Jacobus' more extensive sources.
  21. ^ Osbern Bokenham, (Sheila Delany, tr.) A Legend of Holy Women (University of Notre Dame) 1992, pp 157-67.
  22. ^ J. Etxegoien, Orhipean, Gure Herria ezagutzen (Xamar) 1996 [in Basque].

External links


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