By Dr. Taylor Marshall
In our sexually obsessed culture, the virgin martyrs are our “cloud of witnesses” for sexual purity and chastity. Today is the feast of Saint Agatha who is famous for her iconographical depiction of her breasts – sometimes euphemistically referred to as “Saint Agatha’s Bells.”
I’ve assembled her life and story (along with the legendary significance of her breasts) below in seven points:
- Dates. Saint Agatha (not be be confused with the virgin martyr Saint Agnes) was murdered as a consecrated virgin during the persecution of Decius (250–253) in Catania, Sicily.
- Her Passion and Martyrdom. According to legend, Agatha was the daughter of a rich and noble family. She consecrated her virginity to our Lord Jesus at age 15. The Roman prefect Quintianus sought to either rape her or marry her and she refused his advances. In retaliation, he sent Agatha to a whorehouse under a madame named Aphrodisia. Agatha refused to serve as a prostitute and was sent back to Quintianus who had both of her breasts cut off (the so-called “bells of Agatha”) and sentenced her to be burned at the stake. An earthquake prevented this fate. Saint Peter appeared to her and healed her breasts. She died in at peace in prison.
Painting: St Peter healing the breasts of Saint Agatha.
- An Early Legend featuring Saint Peter. The legend is ancient because by AD 325, male bishops would not touch Christian females – so that deaconesses were employed for the baptism by immersion of females. This legend describes Saint Peter not only touching Agatha’s body, but touching her breasts to heal her – something quite scandalous by the fourth century. The story also reveals that Christians in the 200s had a deep understanding of the Communion of the Saints and believed that saints can and did intervene miraculously in the lives of Christians.
- Her Relics. Agatha’s body is buried at the Badia di Sant’Agata in Catania, Sicily.
- Agatha’s Church in Rome. Church of Saint Agnes of the Goths. The Church of Sant’Agata dei Goti (of the Goths) adapted to Arian Church of the Goths, hence its name “Saint Agatha of Goths.” It was re-consecrated as a Catholic Church by Saint Gregory the Great.
- Agatha’s Iconography. Agatha is almost always depicted carrying her breasts on a tray as in the painting by Zurbarán (below). It is difficult to find a traditional image, statue, or icon that does not depict her breasts. The removal of her breasts is a sign of consecrated virginity. For centuries, this depiction of Agatha visibly depicted how Agatha sacrificed the ability to nurse children. The breasts are a sign of motherhood.
Saint Agatha by Zurbarán
- Her Patronage for Breast Cancer Patients. She is the first recorded woman to experience a full and radical mastectomy, and she naturally became the patroness of breast cancer patients. Traditionally, she is also the patroness of Sicily, wet nurses, bell-founders, bakers, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna.
Please share this with you friends on this feast of Saint Agatha. May she pray for us and inspire to prefer chastity and love for Christ above all the temptations of this life.
Saint Agatha, pray for us,
Dr Taylor Marshall