This spring I journeyed to Catania, a city on the east coast of Sicily, to witness the multi-day Festa di Sant’Agata (Festival of Saint Agatha), which commemorates Saint Agatha’s martyrdom on February 5, A.D. 251. I had dreamt of attending the festival since doing research on the cult and iconography of the saint. Given my specialty in illuminated manuscripts and devotional arts, it was important to experience a religious procession, an activity common throughout the medieval and Renaissance periods.
Legends and miracles surround saints’ lives (and afterlives). Unraveling these stories is often like playing a game of telephone, with different traditions in each region or community. Many areas, such as Palermo, Malta, and Catania, have adopted Saint Agatha as their patron saint, but it is in Catania where the majority of her relics (sacred physical remains of a holy figure) are kept and venerated.
An early Christian convert, Agatha lived during one of the periods of Roman persecution against Christians under Emperor Decius’s brief rule from A.D. 249 to 251. Her hagiography (biography of a saint’s life) was recorded in the famous medieval text The Golden Legend, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine in A.D. 1275. In brief, Agatha was a beautiful, wealthy, and chaste young virgin who attracted the attention of the pagan prefect in Catania. After refusing his advances and demands that she sacrifice to his pagan gods, she was jailed, her breasts were forcibly removed, and she was finally killed after being dragged over burning potshards and coals. Saint Agatha’s severed breasts (miraculously healed by Saint Peter during her incarceration) have become her most recognizable attribute.
The current religious and civic festivals have medieval origins. St. Agatha’s relics were taken to Constantinople in 1040 and returned to Catania on August 17, 1126. According to tradition, when bells were rung in the middle of that night the citizens of Catania rushed from their beds to welcome the safe return of their patron saint.
Today procession participants wear long white robes and black caps, inspired by medieval sleeping costumes. These relics are now stored in a silver casket and a medieval bust from 1376 designed by Giovanni di Bartolo da Siena, laden with jewels gifted over the following centuries, which are processed during the festivities. These are introduced by a candelore (Candlemass) representing local organizations, decorated with flowers and scenes from Saint Agatha’s life.
Today the main festival spans three days, February 3 to 5 (although events happen as early as January and continue into the second week in February, with another procession on August 17). It includes multiple all-day processions throughout the city with stops at various churches for mass, fireworks, devotees lighting and carrying gigantic candles, and even a choral performance by local nuns. Catania springs to life during this time as people flood the streets to catch a glimpse of the saint, with vendors selling candles, flowers, snacks, and Saint Agatha paraphernalia along the parade routes.
Two desserts are traditionally prepared for this time, olivette (marzipan olives) and cassatella (also called cassateddi or minne di sant’agata), a cream-filled marzipan covered cake shaped after Saint Agatha’s severed breasts.
On the evening of February 5th, Saint Agatha is brought from the Duomo and processed up Via Etnea. When I visited, a trio of voices chanting Ave Maria was broadcast over loudspeakers, and the saint’s carriage traveled a few feet at a time before stopping, allowing the crowd to offer their devotions before slowly moving up the street. The sun was setting as the procession started, and by the time Saint Agatha had traveled to where I was standing (nearly a block away from the Duomo), night had fallen and the carriage was illuminated by candles. It was a truly beautiful and emotive moment—the crowd was enraptured, and I felt a shared sense of history as we stood in the same spot that so many had before us.
Lanfranco, Giovanni, Tullia Carratù, and Angela Negro. Effetto Notte: Sant’agata Risanata : Due Dipinti Di Lanfranco a Confronto. Roma: Gangemi, 2011.
Cioni, Elisabetta. Sant’agata, Il Reliquiario a Busto: Contributi Interdisciplinari. Catania, Italy: Edizioni Archidiocesi Catania, 2010.
Pescio, Claudio, and Augusta Tosone. Agata Santa: Storia, Arte, Devozione. Firenze: Giunti Arte, 2008.
Festa di Sant’Agata—For general information on the history of the festival, Catania, and festival routes and events. The homepage for the festival outlines different events and even includes a countdown to the saint day.
@unnieasanta—A Twitter account tracking Saint Agatha’s processional route.
Sicilian Simplicity—A personal blog, and one of the more accurate recipes for the cassatella I sampled!