Today Agatha is an unusual Christian
name. It wasn't always so. Like Lucy, this early Christian saint came from
Sicily. It is unknown whether Agatha was born in Palermo
or Catania, the two
major Sicilian cities.
If you were to ask someone from Palermo about St. Agatha, not only would
they tell you that she is still considered one of the co-patrons of their
city, but they might even show you the exact place where she was born, and
the place where she left her footprint upon leaving the city when she was
taken to Catania for trial.
Ask instead a resident of Catania about her, and they might also show
you her place of birth, although being born in two places at the same time
has never been considered one of the miracles of St. Agatha. Of course,
there is no doubt that Catania is the city of her martyrdom, and the place
where her bones (or at least most of them) rest today.
Who was St. Agatha? What do we know of her life?
According to the "Passio Sanctae Agathae" written during the
fifth century AD (CE) in two versions, one in Greek and the other in Latin,
Agatha was born during the first part of the third century (between the
years 230 and 235) to a wealthy and noble family from Catania (and this
should already be enough to place in doubt her birthplace at the site of
the Church of Sant'Agata alla Guilla behind the Cathedral of Palermo). At
the time, Catania was one of the busiest and most prosperous Roman cities
in Sicily (certainly more so than the Roman city of Panormus, as Palermo was known).
Agatha's parents owned land and houses, and they were Christians, so they
raised their daughter according to this new religion.
The girl grew in beauty and purity and at the young age of fifteen she
expressed her desire of becoming a consecrated virgin. Most probably though
this did not occur before the age of twenty-one as during the early years
of Christianity this often meant that a young woman became a deaconess,
which is almost certainly the case of St. Agatha, who is represented in
the 6th century mosaics of Ravenna wearing a white tunic and the long red
veil ("flammeum") and stole typical of her rank in the Church,
a fact that is also confirmed in the documents regarding her martyrdom.
As a deaconess, she would have had the task of teaching the Christian
faith to new young followers and that of preparing them before they received
Baptism and Holy Communion. Furthermore, in documents regarding her, she
is referred to as a landowner, and at the time of the Roman Empire this
status could only have been possible starting from the age of twenty-one.
During the Christian persecutions under Emperor Trajanus Decius (250-253
AD), the Roman prefect of Catania was a man called Quintianus, who, according
to tradition, upon seeing Agatha one day fell madly in love with her and
started to persecute her because she refused his advances. It is probable
that this persecution was brought on with the intention of confiscating
Agatha's family lands and goods, which would have been possible once she
was condemned as a Christian. At first, Quintianus sent Agatha to Aphrodisia,
probably a priestess of Venus, who practiced sacred prostitution, a common
practice at the time.
It may have been around this time that Agatha sought refuge in Malta, where her catacombs are
located at Rabat, but there is no certainty of this.
She and her followers tried to lure Agatha into following their ways
with orgies, banquets and all kinds of psychological pressure, but after
a month in Aphrodisia's custody, Agatha still refused to give up her virginity
and her faith in Christ, so the priestess sent her back to Quintianus, who
immediately began a trial against her.
After various interrogations, during which Agatha was unyielding and
never gave in to Quintianus' pressures, the woman was first tortured in
various ways and then her breasts (or one breast) were brutally cut off
when she still resisted Quintianus' requests.
Following this mutilation, Agatha was sent to her cell without any salves
or bandages, but that night St. Peter appeared to her accompanied by an
angel, and he healed her wounds. A few days later, she was again brought
before Quintianus, who asked the woman about the healing, and she answered
that Christ had healed her. This was the last straw for the Roman prefect,
who now hated Agatha with the same passion with which he had desired her:
he ordered that she be burned on a bed of coals.
While Agatha lay burning on the hot coals, her red veil was miraculously
left intact. Meanwhile, the city of Catania was shaken by an earthquake,
and the people rebelled against Quintianus' terrible tortures towards
the virgin. Out of fear of loosing his control over the city, the prefect
had Agatha taken off the burning coals, and taken to her cell, where she
died just a few hours later on February 5 in the year 251.
A year later, on the day commemorating her death, Mount Etna erupted
and the lava started moving down towards the city of Catania. The inhabitants
of the city rushed to Saint Agatha's tomb, took out her red veil, and held
it up against the streaming lava, which suddenly halted before doing any
From that day on she became the patron saint of Catania, and the people
believe that the saint has saved their city a great number of times from
natural catastrophes (earthquakes and eruptions), from the plague, and
from the wrath of Emperor Fredrick II in the year 1231. All these
intercessions from St. Agatha make it easier for us to understand the
passion with which the people of Catania commemorate her feast on
February 5 every year with a procession that lasts through the next day.
The majority of her relics are kept in a beautiful urn in the Cathedral
There are a number of relics kept in various churches in Palermo today:
the bone of one of her upper arms at the Palatine Chapel; the bones of
her forearm at the Cathedral; her braided hair at Sant'Agata La Guilla.
There is also a church called Sant'Agata La Pedata with a rather
curious relic: a footprint left by the saint on a block of limestone
when she supposedly left the city to go to Catania. This church was
founded soon after in the year 300.
For many years, Agatha was one of the patrons of Palermo together with
three other women: Christina, Nympha, and Oliva. In 1624, these saints
lost some of their importance among the people of Palermo when the
relics of Saint Rosalie were found.
Her feast is celebrated on 5 February in Catania, where she is the city's
About the Author: Historian Jacqueline Alio wrote Women
of Sicily - Saints, Queens & Rebels and co-authored The Peoples of Sicily - A Multicultural Legacy.