Sant'Agata, 5 February

Sant'Agata, whose name in Greek, Agathé, means good, was martyred in the mid-third century, and some archaeological findings dating back a few decades after her death, which took place, according to tradition, on 5 February 251 AD, are evidence of the antiquity of the cult. It has always been common to name "Agata" girls born on this day.
Sant'Agata Risanata
"St Peter heals Agatha" (1613-14) by Giovanni Lanfranco, Galleria Nazionale, Parma

Agatha and Christianity

Agatha was born in the early decades of the third century (about 235 AD, some histories say on 8th September in Catania, or Palermo); as the whole Roman Empire at that time, Sicily was subject to persecution of Christians, which had begun around 40 AD with Nero, to continue more intense in the second century, based on a law which forbade Christian worship. In the third century the edict of Emperor Septimius Severus ruled that Christians could be first reported to the authorities and then asked to renounce their faith in public. If they agreed to return to paganism, they received a certificate (libellum), which confirmed their belonging to the pagan religion, otherwise they were first tortured and then if they still refused to sacrifice to pagan gods, killed. It was a ruthless system, since the emperor preferred apostates instead of making more martyrs, considered more dangerous than living Christians. In 249, in front of the unstoppable spread of Christianity, however, Emperor Decius was even more drastic: all Christians, whether reported or not, had to be automatically searched by the local authorities, arrested, tortured and then killed.

At that time, Catania was a wealthy, flourishing city, located in an excellent geographical position, with a large harbour, a commercial and cultural exchange hub in the Mediterranean. And as all the cities of the Roman Empire, Catania also had a proconsul or governor, who represented the decentralized power of the by then too large empire; his name was Quintianus, a proud, arrogant man, surrounded by a large court, living with his family, a huge number of slaves and imperial guards in the rich Praetorian Palace in the city.

According to the "Passio Sanctae Agathae" dating from the second half of the 5th century, of which different versions exist, one in Latin and two in Greek, Agatha belonged to a rich and noble family of Catania; her parents, Rao and Apolla, owners of houses and land both in town and in the surrounding area, were Christian and educated Agata in their religion. Growing up in beauty, innocence and virginal purity, since she was a young child she felt in her heart the desire to belong to Christ totally and when she was 15 years old, she felt that it was time to devote herself to God, in a pagan and decaying world. The Bishop of Catania accepted her request and at an official ceremony called "velatio", imposed on her the "flammeum", a red veil worn by consecrated virgins. In the mosaic of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (6th century AD), Agatha is depicted with a long dalmatic tunic, and a shoulder stole, that suggests she became a deaconess.

Martyrdom and Death

The proconsul of Catania Quintianus had the chance to see her, was conquered by her beauty and a burning passion took hold of him. He accused her of insulting the State religion, and commanded her to be brought to the Praetorian Palace. Here a number of folk traditions tell that Agatha fled and took refuge in different places, in a district not far from Catania, Galermo, or Malta, or Palermo, but in the end she was captured and taken before Quintianus.

The proconsul's attempts at seduction were rejected by the firm resistance of young Agatha. He then gave the girl to a courtesan named Aphrodisias, so that she could be convinced to accept his love. For a whole month Agatha was subjected to immoral temptations of every kind, partying, obscene entertainment, banquets, but she resisted and protected her virginity consecrated to her heavenly Spouse. Defeated and disappointed, Aphrodisias gave back Agatha to Quintianus saying: "Her head is harder than the Etna lava."

In his fury, the proconsul started a lawsuit against her, and she showed up dressed as a slave as was common for virgins consecrated to God, "If you're free and noble" objected the proconsul, "Why do you act like a slave?" And she replied, "Because supreme nobility is being slaves of Christ."

Other interrogations followed by accompanied by torture, the story varies from a "Passio" to another, but every torment instead of breaking the resistance of the girl, seemed to give her new strength. Then Quintianus at the height of rage ordered to remove her breasts with huge tongs. This aspect of the torture will be the distinctive symbol of her martyrdom; in fact Agatha is represented with two breasts on a plate with tongs. Back to her cell and bleeding, she endured everything in the name of God; then toward midnight, while she was praying, St. Peter the Apostle appeared, accompanied by a boy carrying a lantern, and her amputated breasts were healed.

After another four days in jail, she was brought back to the proconsul, who saw her wounds healed and asked incredulously what had happened, to which Agata replied that Christ had healed her. Quintianus, unable to bear the defeat, ordered her to be burned on a bed of hot coals. According to one tradition, while the fire was burning her flesh, it did not burn the veil she wore, and for this reason "St. Agatha's veil" immediately became one of the most precious relics, it was raised many times in procession in front of the lava flowing down of Etna, having allegedly the power to stop it.

While Agatha was dying, a strong earthquake shook the city of Catania and the Praetorian Palace partially collapsed, burying two executioners. Then the people of Catania rebelled against the torture of the young girl, and the proconsul was obliged to order Agatha to be removed from the coals and brought back to her cell, where she died a few hours later.

St. Agatha's Veil

It's a stripe of silk, 4 by 0.5 metres, dark red in color, embroidered on both sides with three threads of gold, with many repairs performed with thicker yarn. It is - and has always been - kept in the cathedral, in the chest with the other relics of the patron saint of Catania. It is the "flammeum virginale sanctum" that once maidens consecrated to God carried as proof of their purity. Since ancient times, around the veil many legends and folk traditions flourished. According to one of them, after St. Agatha was burned in the final torture, a matron took off the veil from the head and covered with it the martyred body, and the fabric miraculously turned red.

On the change of color of the flammeum there's another legend, according to which, when Agatha was thrown into the fire with a veil on her head, this did not burn but changed color, from white to red. Another legend, the most beautiful, is that the veil was placed before the lava that threatened the villages, blocked it and changed its color from white to red one year after the death of Agatha on February 5, 251. In the history of volcanic eruptions it is said that the veil of the holy patroness arrested dangerous lava flows nine times.

Sant'Agata - St. Agatha, 5 February
Canvas by Giuseppe Rapisardi (1800), preserved in the museum of the City Castle, Catania, shows the veil surrounded by a crowd of faithful.

The veneration

After exactly one year, on 5 February 252, a violent eruption of Mount Etna threatened Catania: many citizens, both Christians and pagans, ran to the sepulcher, took the miraculous veil and opposed it to the lava, which stopped; since then St. Agatha became not only the patron saint of Catania, but the protector against volcanic eruptions and fires. The last time her patronage proved to be valid through the miraculous veil was in 1886, when one of the recurrent eruptions of Etna threatened the town of Nicolosi, on the slopes of the volcano: after showing the sacred veil, Nicolosi was spared from destruction.

In 1040 the saint's relics were stolen by the Byzantine general Georgos Maniakes and brought to Constantinople, but in 1126 two soldiers of the imperial court, Provencal Gilbert and Apulian Goselmo, brought them back to Catania after the apparition of the saint herself, who promised success of the enterprise; the ship arrived on the night of August 7 at Aci Castello, all the citizens of Catania woke up in the middle of the night and rushed to the shore to honor their "Santaituzza".

Over the centuries, popular events connected to the cult of the saint recalled the ancient pre-Christian rites to goddess Isis, with the symbolism of the breasts cut and then healed; in this way the Christian Sant'Agata took on herself the cult of Isis, the Great Mother. This would also explain her patronage on bell makers, because in pre-Christian cults the bell was a symbol of the womb of the Magna Mater.

Today her relics are preserved in the cathedral of Catania in a silver casket, the work of famous artists; in Catania there is also a silver bust of the "Santaituzza", a work of 1376, bearing a crown which was, according to tradition, a gift from King Richard Lionheart. The cult of St. Agatha was so widespread, that until the 16th century, she was also disputed as belonging to Palermo, until in Palermo the cult of Agatha was supplanted by that of Santa Rosalia. Even in Rome she was much revered, Pope Symmachus (498-514) erected in her honor a basilica on the Via Aurelia and another was dedicated by St. Gregory the Great in 593. In the 13th century just in the diocese of Milan there were as many as 26 churches named after her.

Celebrations and festivities for her feast take place all over Italy, and also in San Marino, but Catania is the center of the deepest veneration, with two festive days - February 5 and August 17 - which feature processions of the precious bust of the saint, preserved in the cathedral. There are eleven guilds of traditional crafts, marching with the so-called "Candelore", vertical sculptures in wood, carved with episodes of St. Agatha's life. The silver bust, preceded by the Candelore is placed onto a "fercolo", a machine drawn through two long, strong ropes by hundreds of young people dressed in a characteristic "sack".

Sant'Agata - St. Agatha, 5 February
The silver bust of the Saint, Cathedral of Catania.