At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Saint Agatha of Sicily – Christian martyr

Huge crowds turn out for feast day in Catania


The flower-bedecked carriage of St Agatha at the February 5 celebration in Catania
The flower-bedecked carriage of St Agatha at the
February 5 celebration in Catania
One of the largest festivals in the Roman Catholic calendar takes place on this day every year to celebrate the life of the Christian martyr Saint Agatha of Sicily.

In Catania, which adopted her as the patron saint of the city, hundreds of thousands of people line the streets to watch the extraordinary sight of up to 5,000 citizens hauling a silver carriage said to weigh 20 tons (18,140kg), bearing a huge statue and containing the relics of the saint, who died in 251AD.

The procession follows a route from Piazza del Duomo that takes in several city landmarks and ends, after a long climb along the Via Antonino di Sangiuliano at Via Crociferi.

The procession begins in the afternoon and finishes deep into the night.  There is an enormous fireworks display that takes place when the procession reaches Piazza Cavour.  The final leg, the Race of the Cord, is the part that involves the seemingly endless lines of white-smocked citizens pulling cords attached to the carriage up the long hill of San Giuliano.

As well as being the patron saint of Catania, which may have been her birthplace and where citizens have long believed she has a calming influence on the volcanic activity of Mount Etna, as well as preventing earthquakes and epidemics of disease, Saint Agatha is the patron saint of breast cancer patients, wet nurses, bell-founders and bakers among others.

Thousands of citizens form a vast human chain to pull the carriage through the streets of Catania
Thousands of citizens form a vast human chain to pull
the carriage through the streets of Catania
These stem from the nature of her legend, in which she was subjected to unthinkable cruelty including the mutilation of her breasts.

It is said that Agatha was born in either Catania or Palermo in about 231AD to a wealthy and noble family. At a very early stage in her life she decided to dedicate herself to God and became a consecrated virgin.

However, she was a naturally beautiful girl and her vows of celibacy did not deter men from being attracted to her and making unwanted advances.

One such person was a Roman prefect named Quintianus, who had been sent by the emperor Decius to govern Sicily, with orders to persecute anyone found to be doing anything to advance the Christian faith.

When Quintianus encountered Agatha, he was transfixed by her beauty and offered to spare her from persecution in return for satisfying his physical desires.

When she refused, he sent her to work in a brothel but she refused to take any customers.  Word of this reached Quintianus, who locked her in prison and said she would be tortured unless she renounced her beliefs.

Sebastiano del Piombo's graphic depiction of the cruel torture of the defiant Agatha
Sebastiano del Piombo's graphic depiction of the cruel
torture of the defiant Agatha
She stuck steadfastly to her promise despite the most awful treatment, which culminated in the slicing off of her breasts. Sent back to prison, she was given no food or medical attention but is said to have been visited by the apostle, St Peter, who supposedly healed her wounds through prayer.

Nonetheless, she died in prison in 251AD, at the age of only 20 years.

As well as being the patron saint of groups such as those stricken with breast cancer and other health problems concerning the breasts, she is also the patron saint of bell-founders on account of her severed breasts resembling bells, and of bakers because of a special cake made for the celebrations.

The cakes – often called minni di virgini (virgins’ nipples) – are filled with sweet ricotta or patisserie cream, covered with marzipan and topped with glossy white or pink icing with a cherry nipple.

Her remains are housed in the Badia di Sant’Agata in Catania – the church opposite the city’s Duomo, which is also dedicated to Saint Agatha.  

The Minni di Virgini cakes that are baked as part of the celebrations
The Minni di Virgini cakes that are baked
as part of the celebrations
There are many other churches in Italy and across the world dedicated to Saint Agatha, including the church of Sant’Agata dei Gotti, in Via Mazzarino in Rome.

As well as being the patron saint of Catania, Agatha is also the patron saint of Sorihuela del Guadalimar in Spain, of Molise and San Marino, and Kalsa, a historical quarter of Palermo.

Saint Agatha is 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.

In art, Saint Agatha was often depicted carrying her severed breasts on a platter, as with Bernardo Luini’s painting in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, and in a panel of the Polyptych of St Anthony, painted by Piero della Francesca, which is kept at the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia.

The Badia di Sant'Agata
The Badia di Sant'Agata
Travel tip:

The Badia di Sant’Agata in Catania, which overlooks Via Vittorio Emanuele II, is one of the city’s principal examples of the Sicilian Baroque style.  Opposite the north elevation of the Duomo, it was designed by Giovanni Battista Vaccarini on the site of an ancient church and convent dedicated to the saint, which was destroyed in the earthquake of 1693.

Travel tip:

The procession on February 5 takes in Via Etnea, the principal shopping street of Catania, an almost dead straight thoroughfare that stretches from Piazza del Duomo to the Municipio (City Hall) over a distance of more than 2.5km (1.5 miles), passing through the Piazza della Università and by the Bellini Gardens.  It is lined with fashionable shops and department stores and is particularly popular on a Saturday, when it is thronged with huge crowds.






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