Agatha, St. (good woman) (third century)
In Christian legend, martyr, patron saint of bell founders, girdlers, jewelers, malsters, wet nurses, weavers, and shepherdesses. Invoked against earthquake, fire, lightning, storm, sterility, wolves, and diseases of the breast. Feast, 5 February. There are many accounts of the saint’s life in both Latin and Greek; these influenced the version in The Golden Legend, a collection of saints’ lives written in the 13th century by Jacobus de Voragine. Agatha was loved by the Roman consul Quintian, but she wanted to remain a virgin. When Quintian found out she was a Christian, he brought her up on charges. She was handed over to a courtesan, Aphrodisia (or Frondisia), who ran a brothel with her six daughters. All of Aphrodisia’s attempts to turn Agatha into a whore failed. When she reported her failure to Quintian, he became so angry that he had Agatha tortured. Her breasts were crushed and then cut off. At night, however, St. Peter and an angel visited her in prison and healed her wounds with “celestial ointment” and then “vanished from her sight.” The next day, when Quintian saw that Agatha’s wounds were healed, he ordered that the girl be rolled over hot coals. When this was done, an earthquake shook the city (Catania, in Sicily), and the people blamed it on Quintian for mistreating Agatha. Finally, after more gruesome torture the saint asked God to free her spirit, and God answered her plea. The cult of St. Agatha goes back to the first centuries of Christianity. Her name occurs on a calendar of saints in Carthage written about
the sixth century, and she is named in the old Latin Mass. Venantius Fortunatus, the early Christian poet, wrote a hymn in her honor. In Christian art she is shown in the procession of saints at Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. One of her attributes, her breasts (during the Middle Ages there were at least six breasts claimed as relics by various churches), were mistaken for loaves of bread in some art works, resulting in the blessing of bread on her feast day. In Sicily she is invoked against the outbreak of fire because, according to her legend, she saved Catania from destruction when Mount Etna erupted. The people took the veil that covered her body and carried it on a spear in procession. As a result of the rite the flames from the eruption stopped spreading. Sebastiano del Piombo, the 16th-century Italian artist, painted The Martyrdom of St. Agatha, taking the removal of her breasts by pincers for his subject. However, the artist seems to be more concerned with the erotic connotations of the exposed breasts than with the saint’s martyrdom.
From the Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante