By Jean Marie Carey

The feast day of St. Agatha (231-251) is celebrated on 5 February.

The patron saint of the city of Catania as well as nurses and victims of breast cancer and sexual assault, Agatha is one of the Roman Catholic Church’s first women martyrs. She died during the persecution of Christians ordered by King Decius as part of an elaborate scheme originally intended to conceal Decius’s murder of his predecessor, Philip.

Agatha refused the advances of Decius’s appointed King of Sicily, Quintanus, who subsequently tortured, mutilated, and murdered the young woman. The cult of Agatha was established in the third century; a fifth-century basilica was installed in her honor in Rome. In the sixth century, the church was adapted to Arianism, hence its name “Saint agatha of Goths”, and later reconsecrated by Pope Gregory I, who confirmed Agatha’s traditional sainthood.

Agatha’s torments have inspired some gratuitous representations of her suffering, and she is often shown with one of her attributes – her severed breasts – on a platter. She is depicted with more decorum in the mosaics of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, where she appears, richly dressed, in the procession of female martyrs along the north wall. Her image forms an initial in the Sacramentary of Gellone, which dates from the end of the eighth century.

Reference: Liana De Girolami Cheney. “The Cult of Saint agatha,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1996), pp. 3-9.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Martyrdom of Saint Agatha, 1520. Scala Archives.

Giovanni Cariani, St. agatha, 1516. University of California Slide Library.

Parmigianino, Martyrdom of Saint Agatha, c. 1523. Abbazia di San Giovanni Evangelista, Parma, Italy

Francesco Furini, St. agatha, c. 1640. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Martyrdom of St. Agatha, detail, c. 1740. University of California Slide Library.

Procession of the Holy Virgins and Martyrs, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, c 526. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Further Reading: Rosa Giorgi and Stefano Zuffi. Saints in Art. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.

Graham Coulter-Smith and Maurice Owen. Art in the Age of Terrorism. London: Paul Holberton, 2005. 

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