The historical origins of the Feast
Agatha was born into a noble family of Catanese Christians, around the year 230 AD. At that time Catania had been under Roman subjugation which barbarically persecuted anyone who dared to professed their Christian faith, which is why Agatha’s family, like the rest of the Christian community, lived their faith in secret and silence. Despite these difficulties, Agatha decided from an early age to consecrate herself to God.
Around the year 251 AD, the Roman Emperor Decius, issued one of the most remarkable Roman imperial edicts. From the numerous surviving texts from Egypt, recording the act of sacrifice, it appears that the edict itself was fairly clear: “All the inhabitants of the empire were required to sacrifice before the magistrates of their community ‘for the safety of the empire’ by a certain day (the date varies from place to place and the order may have been that the sacrifice had to be completed within a specified period after a community received the edict). When they sacrificed they would obtain a certificate (libellus) recording the fact that they had complied with the decree. That is, the certificate would testify the sacrificant’s loyalty to the ancestral gods and to the consumption of sacrificial food and drink as well as the names of the officials who were overseeing the sacrifice.
Quintianus became proconsul of the city of Catania, whom upon arriving at the government seat of Catania had the intent to enforce this anti christian edict of the emperor and enforce his draconian laws.
Seeing the young maiden, Quintianus fell in love with her and, having learned of her vow of virginity, ordered her to deny her faith and to adore the pagan gods, he thought he could force her to turn away from her vow of chastity and marry him. He expected her to give in to his demands when she was faced with torture and possible death, but she simply reaffirmed her unshakable belief in God by praying: “Jesus Christ, Lord of all, you see my heart, you know my desires. Possess all that I am. I am your sheep: make me worthy to overcome the devil.” With tears falling from her eyes, she prayed for courage. In an attempt to force her to change her mind, Quintianus sent Agatha to Aphrodisia, the keeper of a local brothel and who imprisoned there. Agatha never lost her confidence in God, even though she suffered months of rape, assault, and mental torture as an effort to get her to abandon her vow of chastity to God and go against her virtue. Nevertheless, Agatha continued to reject the amorous advances of the Roman proconsul. Perhaps, Quintianus’ focus was aimed more at the confiscation of lands and property belonging to Agatha’s wealthy family as an effort to enrich himself. Yet the attempts of the perverse courtesan Aphrodisia were always opposed by Agatha’s unshakable faith in God, so much so that Aphrodisia herself gave up her endeavour by returning Agatha into the hands of the proconsul. Quintianus now frustrated beyond constraint and using the knowledge that she was a Christian, had her arrested and brought before the tribunal to have her judged. As proconsul he also happened to be her judge.
Quintianus started the trial and summoned Agatha to the Praetorian Palace. Tradition still maintains that the dialogues between Agatha and the proconsul which reveal her ability to stand up to those who were judging her with well versed arguments. It was only a short step from her trial to her imprisonment.
After several days of fasting, faced with the young woman’s steadfastness, the physical torture began, from flogging to the atrocious tearing of her breasts, which it is said were prodigiously increased during the night thanks to the intervention of St. Peter. The girl’s unwavering faith sentenced her to the last of her tortures, a bed of burning embers, during which she another prodigious event tells us: while Agate’s body was tormented by fire, the red veil, symbol of her consecration to God, didn’t burn. After her torture she prayed one last time “O Lord Jesus Christ, good Master, I give You thanks that You granted me victory over the executioners’ tortures. Grant now that I may happily dwell in Your never-ending glory.” An then Agatha died, the day was February 5, 251.
Her body was embalmed and wrapped in a red veil which, according to local legend, several times stopped the lava flow which had threatened the city, as happened exactly one year after his death. Following these miraculous wonders, Agatha was proclaimed a saint. Initially buried in the Christian catacombs on the hill of San Domenico, after the Edict of Constantine of 313, the body of the Saint was brought to the Church of Santa Maria di Betlemme. Between the 4th and 5th centuries the body was transferred to the Church of Sant’Agata La Vetere. The relics were later stolen and brought to Constantinople in 1040. Then in 1126 two soldiers of the Byzantine army kidnapped them and handed them over to the bishop of Catania Mauritius O.S.B., in the castle of Aci. On August 17, 1126, the relics definitively returned to the Cathedral of Sant’Agata, Catania Cathedral where they are now preserved partly inside the precious silver half-bust (part of the skull, chest and some internal organs) and inside the casket, also made of silver (parts of her arms and hands, femurs, legs and feet, breast and the veil).
Numerous precious gifts that over the centuries have enriched the half-bust reliquary of the Saint and that over time have become a priceless treasure, donated among others by famous people such as Queen Margaret of Savoy, Fernando de Acuña y de Herrera Viceroy of Sicily and the composer Vincenzo Bellini. Among the the most famous gifts is, the crown that stands out on the head of the reliquary bust: a jewel in studded gold and precious stones, donated by the Plantagenet King Richard I (the Lionheart) of England during a crusade and his occupation of Sicily on October 4, 1190.
ORIGINS OF THE FEAST OF SANT’AGATA
The Folkloristic Origins
We find many of the elements and places of the history lived by Agatha in different forms in the veneration that the people of Catania gave her almost immediately and which over time has turned into a Feast that has little comparison throughout the world. The origins of the veneration of Sant’Agata date back to 252, the year following her martyrdom. The people immediately began to show great devotion toward this young virgin martyr.
The origin of the celebrations are somewhat different.
As happens with most of the sacred feasts, it is very probable that the veneration for the young virgin of Catania, who became a saint, was the source of the celebrations which now occupy the place of a pre-existing pagan feast. It is not surprising therefore that the future celebrations in honour of Sant’Agata would replace that of the ancient pagan festival, perpetuating all of its splendour which also incorporated some pagan elements as with most christian catholic feast days and that of other religious faiths and their feasts.
The first official occasion to celebrate Sant’Agata came when the remains of the Saint who had been stolen returned to Catania. It was 17 August, 1126, during the night the citizens poured into the streets of the city to thank God for having returned the remains of their beloved martyr Agatha to them after 86 years. A date which is still remembered today by a smaller procession of the casket and reliquary half-bust in the streets of the centre. Initially of an exclusively liturgical nature, it was only with the construction of the “vara” a wooden trestle in 1376 that the celebrations began to take on a form closer to that of today with the start of the processions throughout the streets of the city of Catania.
Previously, only the veil of the saint had been carried in procession. Gradually the purely religious feast was joined by a more popular feast, by demand of the Senate and the people, in which the liturgies were accompanied by shows of an entirely different nature. This is the origin of the civic festival which still characterises the celebrations of Sant’Agata and which, until almost the end of the 1600s, took place for one day, on February 4.
After 1712, given the growing importance attached to the event, the days of celebrations were increased to two, probably because the city had expanded so much that it was no longer possible to travel through the different neighbourhoods in a single day. The Feast today starts on 3 February until 5 February, and more often than not ends late morning of February 6.
THE FEAST OF SANT’AGATA IN THIS DAY AND AGE
The preparations for the Feast dedicated to Sant’Agata take up a large part of the month of December and January, the highlights of the festival being 3 to 5 February. The entire city comes to a standstill as the Feast flows day and night throughout the streets of Catania, breathing life into one of the most momentous religious festivals in the christian world, where religion and folklore are inextricably intertwined.
The religious celebrations begin on February 3 with the suggestive procession of the offering of the wax to the Saint which starts from the Church of Sant’Agata alla Fornace in Piazza Stesicoro, built on the ancient furnace in which the Saint was martyred, to reach the Cathedral in Piazza Duomo. The procession of the 11 candelore or “cannalori”, tall wooden columns, richly carved and decorated, containing waxes representing the guilds of arts and crafts of the city of Catania, open the procession.
Given the conspicuous heaviness, the candelore are carried on the shoulder by 4 or 12 men, the carriers, who make them proceed with a characteristic gait called “a ‘nnacata”. The procession is represented by
all the civil and religious dignitaries of the city. From the Palazzo degli Elefanti, seat of the Municipality, to the exiting of the “Carrozza del Senato” which actually opens the festivities.
In reality, these are two eighteenth-century carriages that belonged to the ancient Senate of the city, on board of which the mayor and some members of the Executive go to the church of San Biagio to bring the keys of the city to the religious authorities. This first day ends in the evening, “in sira ‘o tri”, in a very crowded Piazza Duomo, with a concert of songs dedicated to the saint together with a grandiose and unique fireworks display where the fires follow the rhythm of the music.
The celebrations continue on day four with a religious function, “Santa Messa dell’Aurora” held at dawn in the Cathedral of Piazza Duomo. Before the service, the reliquary bust depicting Sant’Agata is taken out of the room in which it is kept. Three keys kept by three different people are used to open the heavy gate of the bedroom where it is kept.
This is the moment after a year’s wait that the citizens once again meet the “Santuzza”. The exciting and irrepressible cry of the devotees who greet her with a cry that invites all of the citizens present to venerate her while waving a white handkerchief. And the citizens of Catania clamour in one voice:
“è ccu razia e ccu cori, pi sant’Aituzza bedda, ca stà niscennu, cittadini!
semu tutti devoti, tutti? cittadini, cittadini, cittadini! evviva sant’Agata, cittatini!
evviva sant’Agata. tutti devoti, tutti? cittadini, cittadini!”
The precious half-bust containing the relics of Agata is loaded onto the fercolo, “a vara”, and transported to the main altar of the cathedral and so the religious function begins. Immediately after Mass, the fercolo, loaded with the silver casket which also contains the relics of the Saint, is carried in procession. And the “external circuit” of the city begins, a
long circuit that will end at the first light of dawn on the 5th sometimes the 6th and crosses the places of martyrdom and the venues that the “Santuzza” would have frequented in her day. The most evocative and spectacular moment of this second day is certainly “a cchianata de ‘Cappuccini” (the Capuchins climb), the moment in which the fercolo is pulled by the devotees to its pinnacle arriving at front of the Church of San Domenico a Capuchin church and monastery are near.
Another important stage of this circuit is also “a calata da marina”, the ancient descent to the sea that until the end of the nineteenth century arrived where the so-called navy arches now stand. This is the symbolic place for the departure of the Saint’s relics for Constantinople. The circuit on the 4th ends at the first light of dawn when, once again in the Cathedral, the Saint is greeted by a spectacular game of fireworks.
A short break, a little rest before seeing the city again crowded with faithful and devotees with the white sack for the last long day of the party. It is now February 5, the day of S. Agata. In the late morning the solemn pontifical is celebrated in the Cathedral, in the presence of bishops from all over Sicily and a papal legate. The fercolo, which the day before was covered with red carnations to symbolise martyrdom, is now covered with white carnations, a symbol of Agata’s purity. After sunset, around 18.00, the “internal circuit” of the city begins. The fercolo goes up Via Etnea, arriving late at night in Piazza Cavour, better known as the “Borgo”, a neighbourhood where refugees from Misterbianco were welcomed following the eruption of Etna in 1669. The settlement’s name Misterbianco derived from a former local monastery, whose monks, likely Dominicans, wore a white habit (in Latin, Monasterium Album, “White Monastery”). However, both the monastery and the settlement were destroyed by the 1669 eruption.
Here the Saint stops for another the long-awaited fireworks display after which the circuit resumes down the via Etnea until the most spectacular moment of the whole festival, “a cchianata ‘i Sangiulianu”. Between two lines of the crowds who await with bated breath, the fercolo is transported in a rush by the devotees along the steep climb of Via San Giuliano. A very dangerous part of the route that precedes the stop in the most beautiful baroque street of the city, Via Crociferi, where, in front of the convent of the Benedictine nuns, the crowd silently listens to the nuns who from behind the grates of the monastery sing songs in San’Agata honour.
Its an evocative and mystical moment for all those who participate be they part of the faithful or non believers. This is the last stop before returning to the cathedral after touring the city for several days. It is followed by yet another grand firework display. The last one of the year, after three long days in the hands of its citizens, the Saint greets her city and returns back to the bedroom to rest for yet another year.
Lord God, Saint Agatha always gladdened You with her virtue, honesty and chastity. She never denied You and was martyred for firmly believing in You by those who would deny You. May we plead and through Saint Agatha’s intercession obtain Your forgiveness for our sins, our weaknesses and our omissions. Forgive us for we are sinners, grant us the strength to be as strong as Saint Agatha. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today Saint Agatha is Patron to: Bell-founders; breast cancer; breast disease; Catania, Italy; against fire; earthquakes; eruptions of Mount Etna; fire; fire prevention; jewelers; martyrs; natural disasters; nurses; Palermo, Italy; rape victims; single laywomen; sterility; torture victims; volcanic eruptions; wet-nurses; Zamarramala, Spain.
Things to Do: Bake an Agatha loaf! On St. Agatha’s feast day people would bake loaves attached to a picture of St. Agatha and prayers for protection from fires. The parish priests would bless the loaves, and people would keep them in their homes in case of a poor harvest and famine. The prayers would then be hung above the main door of each home invoking St. Agatha’s guardianship.