A victim of repeated sexual assault and vicious torture including the cutting off of her breasts, Saint Agatha’s steadfast commitment to her covenant with God is a timeless inspiration.
St. Agatha was born in c.231AD to a rich noble family in Catania, a region in Sicily. Christianity was outlawed in the Roman Empire at that time, and the ruling emperor, Emperor Trajan Decius, even had Pope Fabian executed. St. Agatha was only 15 years old when she took a vow of virginity in the name of God.
St. Agatha is most notably the patron saint of wet nurses, breast cancer, rape victims, bellfounders, martyrs, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and bakers. She is also the patron saint of several European countries and regions, including Catania, Malta, San Marino, and Palermo, and an intercessor for those suffering from fires and against the volcanic eruptions of Mount Etna. The name Agatha comes from the Ancient Greek word for “good.” She is one of the most highly venerated Christian virgin martyrs. Here are 11 fascinating facts about the tragic and brave life of St. Agatha.
#1 Saint Agatha Died in 251 AD After Being Tortured
St. Agatha endured much suffering before finally succumbing to her wounds. It started when she rejected the many marriage proposals from a certain Roman magistrate, Quintianius, who had been sent by Emperor Decius to govern her district. She had rejected the proposals because she had already pledged her virginity to God. Bitter, enraged, and offended, Quintianius reported St. Agatha to the Roman authorities for being a Christian. He had hoped that the threat of death and torture would persuade St. Agatha to marry him, but he was wrong.
Quintianius had St. Agatha imprisoned for a month in a brothel owned by a woman named Aphrodisia. Quintianius had hoped that this would terrify and traumatize St. Agatha into changing her mind and agreeing to marry him. Even though she was assaulted and forced into sexual slavery in the brothel, St. Agatha did not break her covenant with God.
Quintianius sent for St. Agatha to try to persuade her to marry him, but she refused to give up her virginity, and so Quintianius threw her into prison. She was stretched on a rack where her body was torn with iron hooks, beaten, and had her breasts torn off with iron pincers. Still unwilling to yield to Quintianius, St. Agatha was tied up and prepared to be burned alive, but the rattle and chaos of an earthquake stopped it from happening that day. The Roman guards took the wooden stake down and threw her back into her cell.
While back in prison, St. Peter, who had died somewhere between 64 AD and 68 AD, appeared to her in a vision and healed her breasts. She was sent before a judge who was amazed to see this healing. Again, refusing to denounce God, she was rolled over hot coals and shards of glass. Another earthquake rattled through the region and tore down two walls. Fearing popular uprising, the judge sent St. Agatha back to prison so that she would die. She spent her final moments in great physical pain before she passed into Heaven.
#2 Saint Agatha Was “Canonized” Around 600 AD
St. Agatha was recognized as a saint by Pope Gregory I at some point during his reign. He was the bishop of Rome from 590 AD to 604 AD. This is considered to be equivalent to her canonization. She was never formally canonized, as she lived in a time called “pre-congregation,” which was before the creation of today’s formal process of canonization where the Catholic Church decides whether someone is worthy of universal veneration.
#3 Saint Agatha Is Venerated by the Basques and With a 3-Day Festival
The Basques, an indigenous European population, traditionally gather on February 4. This is the day before St. Agatha’s feast day. They travel around the local village and offer a song to homeowners about the life of St. Agatha, and sometimes a prayer for a deceased member of the household. This song varies in accordance with dialect or is sung in the Basque language. Homeowners are then expected to offer food to the meandering group.
In Catania, Sicily, the hometown of St. Agatha, the massive “Festival of Saint Agatha” is held annually. It is Catania’s most important religious festival as she is also the city’s patron saint. This takes place from February 3-5 and is a mystical and unifying celebration.
The first day of the festival begins with a procession of eleven large baroque gilded candles. These are carried from the Church of St. Agatha to the Cathedral of St. Agatha. A cross-country race takes place throughout the streets of Catania at 3 pm. There are fireworks and a concert in the evening in Piazza del Duomo, a major square in the city.
The second day of the festival begins with the “Messa dell’Aurora” (Mass at Dawn). A large bust of St. Agatha is placed on a 40,000-pound silver carriage, taken out of the Cathedral of St. Agatha, and carried through places of biographical importance for St. Agatha and through the streets of Catania. Followers traditionally wear a white tunic that goes down as far as the ankles.
On the third and last day of the festival, the silver carriage is dragged up a steep hill. Tradition holds that safe passage up the hill for the statue is a good sign for the year to come.
#4 Saint Agatha’s Symbol and Iconography Is of Her Holding Her Severed Breasts
The symbolism around St. Agatha focuses on her breasts that were torn off by the Roman guards while she was imprisoned. Depictions of St. Agatha often show her holding a plate with two severed breasts upon it. Examples of this are in Zurbarán’s 17th-century work “St. Agatha,” or Piero della Francesca’s 15th-century painting of the same name.
When painted holding this plate, St. Agatha may also be seen clutching knives, shears, or tongs. This is to again signify the unfathomable pain and torture that she endured.
A symbol of martyrdom, Agatha is also often presented with a palm leaf in her hand.
St. Agatha was almost burned at the stake, and so she is known to be depicted alongside embers.
#5 Saint Agatha’s Feast Day Celebration Is on February 5th
Her feast day is February 5, the date of her martyrdom.
#6 Saint Agatha’s Remains Are in Catania, Sicily
The remains of St. Agatha are kept in the Chapel of St. Agatha. This is located in the highly impressive Catania Cathedral. The Chapel has a large steel gate between the altar and the public which makes it largely inaccessible to laypeople. The remains are brought out on February 5 every year in celebration of her feast day.
#7 The Location of Saint Agatha’s Major Shine Is a Crypt in Malta
Maltese tradition claims that St. Agatha fled from Sicily to Malta for safety from the Romans around 249 AD. She and some friends hid in the catacombs of Rabat, Malta. St. Agatha spent her time there praying and teaching Christianity to local Maltese children.
Pilgrims today visit St. Agatha’s Crypt in Malta. It was named after her because it was a cave in which St. Agatha used to go and pray. Though a fairly large structure today, almost 2,000 years ago the crypt was instead a very small cave. The Chapel for St. Agatha was built on top of the crypt.
#8 There Are Churches in Sicily Marking Saint Agatha’s Imprisonment and Death
Sant’Agata al Carcere (St. Agatha at the Prison) is a church in Catania, Sicily. It is considered to mark the spot where she was imprisoned under Roman rule.
Not far from this, Chiesa di San Biagio or Sant’Agata alla Fornace (Church of St. Blaise or St. Agatha at the Furnace) marks the spot where she was placed over hot coals.
#9 Saint Agatha Stopped Mount Etna’s Volcanic Eruption
A year after St. Agatha’s death, Mount Etna erupted and threatened the lives of the people of Palermo, Sicily. Remembering that St. Agatha was saved from being burned alive by an earthquake, the locals prayed to her to calm the volcano. The eruption ceased. It is because of this that she became the patron saint of Palermo, and her name is often evoked in protection of fire.
#10 There Are Traditional Saint Agatha Pastries in the Shape of a Naked Breast
Around the time of St. Agatha’s feast day, Italy, Sicily, and several other European countries have “Minne di Sant’Agata,” or “Agatha Buns.” These are iced cakes topped with fruit, intended to resemble an individual breast of St. Agatha.
#11 Saint Agatha Is One of Only 7 Female Saints Listed in the Roman Canon of the Mass
After the consecration of the Eucharist in a Catholic mass, the priest will often mention the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, the 12 apostles, and 27 saints. In addition to St. Agatha, St. Felicity, St. Perpetua, St. Lucy, St. Agnes, St. Cecilia, and St. Anastasia are the only female saints mentioned during the Eucharistic Prayer I.
There are few people who would not be moved by the tale of St. Agatha’s life, torture, and death. She provides an extraordinary example of devotion to God even in the hardest of times.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.