Artwork created 26–29 May 2023.
If there has been something that has intensified over the past year, it has been this gentle but firm pressure from above to represent particular saints. With St Agatha this pressure has been of unusual strength.
Way back at the end of April I had collected a series of reference images, which I left on my drawing desk day in and day out, but strangely couldn’t get much further with.
The impasse only changed after a deeper dive into the story of her life, and of how she has been represented in Rome and in Sicily. In doing so she went from being an important saint mentioned in Eucharistic Prayer 1 of the Church to being formidable and unforgettable.
A brief re-cap of her life would be useful. St Agatha was a native of Sicily, and a beautiful and rich young woman of a noble family who had given her life to Jesus as a consecrated virgin. To signify this consecration she wore a veil.
When the early tortures failed to move her determination, he then ordered that her breasts be torn off with the special type of tongs you see depicted and then rolled in hot coals. Neither managed to kill her, and she was returned to her prison cell where St Peter visited her. Next Quintianus decided to burn her at the stake, but an earthquake happened to prevent that happening. So she was returned to her prison cell where she died of her injuries.
The lictor sliced off my breasts with doubled blows,
Due to the details of her martyrdom, St Agatha became the patron saint of breast cancer sufferers, of rape victims, of nurses, of bell-founders, of Sicily, and other patronages.
One of the images that helped was the statue of St Agatha above the colonnade at St Peter’s basilica in Rome. It told the story of her life without being unchaste. The other image that helped was the reliquary of St Agatha’s head kept in the Cathedral of Catania in Sicily.
This reliquary is a master-work of silver and enamel. An online article about the relics of St Agatha can be viewed here.
If you are patient (depending on the device you are using), it is worth using the Google translate option if you (like me) are not fluent in Italian.
On either side of the bust representing St Agatha are two angels. She is crowned, and in one hand holds a crucifix and in the other she holds an inscription. The whole thing is covered with votive offerings, pectoral crosses from bishops, episcopal rings, jewels etc. According to tradition, the crown upon her head was put there by King Richard the Lionheart.
Also this reliquary is the origin of the decision for blonde hair rather than the black or brunette hair found more widely in popular culture imagery of St Agatha.
Below is the inscription, and a translation of it, that found all over the Cathedral of Catania where her reliquary–bust is kept, and that I have included underneath my depiction of St Agatha:
Mentem Sanctam Spontaneam Honorem Deo Et Patriae Liberationem
These are no idle words. Her veil, kept in a separate reliquary, has been successfully used several times to invoke God’s help when natural disasters threatened Sicily.
When invaders came to Sicily and rounded up the native inhabitants, the conqueror permitted them to have a last Mass at the shrine of St Agatha before being executed. When it came time for everyone to open up the hymn books, each and every page held the initials of a promise that St Agatha would always protect Sicily with her intercession. Needless to say, the inhabitants were saved, and the invaders exited in a hurry.
St Agatha, this holy martyr, has been given mighty intercessory power by God.
St Agatha, pray for us. Amen.
Catherine Cavanagh, (based on notes and with minor edits by Vincent Cavanagh).
~31 May 2023
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