Feast Day :February 5
Although Agatha has been venerated as a saint and martyr since ancient times, none of the legendary details of her life or death can be authenticated. The stories of her terrible persecutions appear in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (Martyrology of St. Jerome) and the Martyrologium Carthaginiense (Carthaginian calendar of martyrs), the Carmina of Venantius Fortunatus, and the canon of the Mass, but many scholars now believe Agatha to have been an inspiring but fictional character. Both Palermo and Catania in Sicily take credit as the site of Agatha’s birth, supposedly to a wealthy and influential family. Her beauty attracted the attention of the Roman consul Quintinian, but Agatha refused his offer of marriage, having dedicated her life as a virgin to Christ. His ego bruised, Quintinian committed Agatha to a brothel, but she stood firm and retained her virginity. Enraged, Quintinian turned her over to a magistrate and accused her of being a Christian. The Acts of her martyrdom place her arrest during the reign of Emperor Decian, about 250—a period of horrific persecution. First the magistrate ordered Agatha to be beaten and imprisoned, but when those tortures had no effect on her faith he condemned her to be stretched on the rack. Her cheerful confidence in Christ’s love against such suffering so offended the magistrate that he had her breasts crushed and then cut off, ordering her to a dungeon without food, water or medicine. But St. Peter supposedly came to her in a vision of light, accompanied by a youth carrying a torch, and healed her wounds. Unimpressed by such a miracle, Quintinian ordered the magistrate to have Agatha rolled naked over live coals mixed with broken potsherds. Agatha prayed for release, and at that very moment an earthquake struck Catania. Asking Christ to receive her soul, Agatha died. Her courage and spirit fostered a cult of worship all over Christendom. Pope Symmachus built a church in her honor on the Via Aurelia in Rome. Prayers by St.Lucy of Syracuse at St. Agatha’s tomb reportedly cured the saint’s mother, Eutychia, from hemorrhage. A letter from Pope Gelasius (r. 492–496) to a Bishop Victor in the fifth century referred to the basilica of St. Agatha. Pope St. Gregory I the Great (r. 590–604) mentioned a Roman church dedicated to St. Agatha given to the Arian Goths. Pope Gregory reconsecrated the church of Sant’ Agata dei Goti for Catholic worship in the late sixth century. Medieval church paintings of Agatha often showed her carrying her severed breasts on a platter—an image many mistook for loaves of bread. Consequently, the tradition arose of blessing “Agatha bread” on her feast day. The shape of her breasts also evoked bells, especially those used as fire alarms. The carrying of her veil, supposedly taken from her tomb, on a lance in procession reportedly has stopped or prevented eruptions of Mount Etna. Prayers for her intercession were credited with preventing the Turks from taking the island of Malta in 1551. Following the Peace of Constantine, Agatha’s relics went to Constantinople, but they were translated to Catania about 1126.