- 1 SAINT AGATHA
- 2 SAVIOUR OF CATANIA
- 3 THE RELICS
- 4 THE PROCESSION
- 5 CANDELORE
- 6 PATRON SAINT
- 7 SITES OF THE CULT
Sicily at the Time of Agatha
Agatha lived around the middle of the 3rd Century and at that time the Roman Empire had reached its maximum extent. It stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to Mesopotamia, from Britain to Egypt, embracing peoples, languages, religions and customs very different from those of Rome itself. Central government was concerned to apply some level of uniformity to the conquered territories, imposing Latin as the universal language, Roman laws and Rome’s own form of religion, but it was not capable of administering and controlling the provinces directly from the capital.
During the reign of the Emperor Decius Catania was a prosperous and flourishing city, which moreover benefited from its excellent geographical situation. Its large natural harbour at the very heart of the Mediterranean made it one of the most lively centres of trade and cultural exchange at that time. Historical sources tell us that it was administered by the proconsul Quintianus, a coarse man, domineering and proud. Along with his wife and family, a numerous court of attendants, the imperial guard and a team of slaves he lived in the opulent praetorian palace, an enormous complex of buildings including law courts and prison cells, in which took place all the official activities of the city.
In 264BC at the end of the Second Punic war against the Carthaginians Sicily passed to the dominion of Rome and the island became subject to the pagan religion of the Romans, with all its merry and popular deities, paragons of corruption and dissolute behaviour.
When the Christian community began to become a sizable element, around 40AD, the first persecutions were unleashed against it. But, initially under Nero, around that middle of the 1st Century they were only of an intermittent nature.
Then during the 2nd Century the persecutions were given a legal base by means of a law which forbade the Christian religion. In these first centuries the Church was witness to several martyrs who by their courage and determination to accept the death of Christ, contributed to the expansion of Christianity.
At the beginning of the 3rd Century the emperor Septimius Severus issued an edict that called for the persecution of Christians. He decreed that Christians had first to be denounced to the authorities and then invited to recant their faith publicly. If they agreed to embrace the pagan religion they had the right to the libellum, a sort of certificate confirming religious conformity, but if they refused to sacrifice to the gods they would first be tortured and then put to death. By this cold and calculating system the emperor sought to make apostates, namely persons who abandoned the Christian faith, rather than to create martyrs, who were considered to be more dangerous than living Christians. Then confronted with the continuing spread of Christianity and fearful that the increase in its adherents might threaten the stability of the Empire, in 249AD the Emperor Decius ordered a yet more thorough wave of repression : all Christians, whether denounced or not, were deprived of any office, hunted down, tortured and finally imprisoned.
Consecration to God
At an early stage, while still in her childhood, Agatha felt the keen desire in her heart to dedicate herself to Christ. She felt a simple but spontaneous devotion to the celestial Spouse and this was so strong that she was impatient to make a vow of virginity. In the depths of her soul she had already promised herself to God and when she was not yet 15 years old she felt that the moment had arrived for her solemn dedication. The bishop of Catania received her request during an official ceremony, known as the taking of the veil, he placed upon her the flammeum, the flame coloured veil worn by consecrated virgins. From that day Agatha became a Bride of Christ. She had awaited that moment with anxiety and trepidation and had prayed so much to God to be able to offer Him her heart in all its purity. Thus, after such a wait, the ceremony made her profoundly happy, agreeing to live henceforth in prayer and meditation.
Flight and Arrest
One day the proconsul Quintianus was informed that among the consecrated virgins in the city there lived a noble and beautiful young girl. He decided on the spot that he had to get to know her. He ordered his men to capture her and to bring her to the praetorian palace : the girl in question was Agatha.
The formal accusation, in implementation of the edict of persecution from the Emperor Decius, was of vilifying the State religion, an accusation levelled at all Christians who would not deny their faith. In fact the proconsul’s order also sprang from his desire to satisfy a fancy and a personal interest : to trap for himself a beautiful and pure young girl, as well as seizing her family’s property. In order to escape the proconsul’s order, for some time Agatha remained hidden outside of Catania. On this matter history and legend are very complicated with several cities claiming the honour of having sheltered the martyr in exile. One of the most plausible theories, the most probable in fact, is that Agatha took refuse in Galermo, a village not that far from Catania, where her parents owned some properties and lands. According to another tradition, that probably arose from a mistake in copying the ancient accounts of her martyrdom, says that Agatha sought refuge in Palermo, rather than Galermo. A last and scarcely creditable tradition from outside Italy maintains that Agatha hid herself in a cave on the island of Malta.
Over the centuries people have embroidered the legendary episodes of the flight and arrest of Agatha. One story tells how fleeing from the men sent by Quintianus but in the vicinity of the praetorian palace she paused for a moment. At the very moment that she stopped to fasten her shoe, an olive tree appeared from nowhere and the young girl could refresh herself by feeding on its fruit. So to this very day in order to commemorate that extraordinary event it is the custom to cultivate an olive tree close to the places of her martyrdom. Another popular tradition connected to this legend has it that on the day of the Feast of Saint Agatha sweets are eaten made of marzipan. coloured green and dusted with sugar, which by their shape remind us of the olives and so are called «little olives of Saint Agatha». But to turn back to history, Agatha only remained a short time in exile. Her pursuers, the ruffians in the service of the proconsul, tracked her down with that ease that characterises the powerful and they led her to be tried be Quintianus.
In the House of Aphrodisia
No sooner did he see her than Quintianus was struck by her beauty. He was seized with a burning lust for her, but his attempts to seduce her were in vain, as Agatha repelled him with ever greater firmness. Then the proconsul hit upon a plan of re-education that would transform the young girl and would convince her to renounce her vows and surrender herself to his caresses. So for a month he handed he over to a courtesan, a mature woman of immoral life, an expert in vice and corruption who was known by the name of Aphrodisia.
The woman lived in a house with her daughters, nine in number according to tradition, just as diabolical and licentious as their mother. It was the hardest and most terrible month ever for young Agatha. Her purity was forcibly assailed by continual insults, evil examples and immoral suggestions. In order to make her forget Jesus Aphrodisia tempted her by every means : lavish meals, festivities, entertainments of all types, promises of jewels, riches and slaves. But Agatha scorned each of these gifts.
When the means of persuasion showed itself to be unable to break her firm will, Aphrodisia and her daughters tried to each the same end through threats. «Quintianus will have you killed» they hinted to her. But the incorruptible virgin rebuffed their every proposal and showed herself immune to every threat. She replied with dry refusals in vigorous terms : «Your promises are vain, your words are foolish, your threats impotent».
Young Agatha was at all times faithful to her only Spouse : to Him she offered up the sufferings she bore for her faith and day after day her spirit was ever more resolute. At the end of the month and confronted by Agatha’s determination Aphrodisia could do no other than admit defeat. Ill at ease and humiliated she handed the girl back to Quintianus : «She has a head harder than the lava of Etna, she only cries and prays to her invisible Bridegroom. To hope for the slightest sign of affection from her is only a waste of time».
Quintianus duly noted that flattery, promises and threats had absolutely no effect on the girl, as beautiful as much as she was enamoured of Jesus. So he decided to give an immediate start to a trial, hoping thereby to take her by force. Summoned to the praetorian palace Agatha entered proud but humble. She stepped steadily towards her persecutor and when her clear gaze met that of Quintianus it could perceive the rage and the lust of her opponent. Agatha was not frightened, she knew that the Holy Spirit would assist her and would provide her with the words to say to the tyrant. She was confident because Jesus himself had promised it to His disciples. She appeared before the proconsul dressed as a slave, as was the custom of virgins consecrated to God, and Quintianus sought to mock this behaviour in order to provoke her. «I am not a slave, but a servant of the King of Heaven,» Agatha promptly explained. «I am the freeborn daughter of a noble family, but my greater nobility comes from being the handmaid of Jesus Christ». Agatha’s declarations were so cutting and proud, worthy of the simplicity of the virgin with the firmness of the martyr. Agatha replied to Quintianus :»You who consider yourself noble are in fact a slave to your passions». This was a sore provocation to him as lord of that land and guarantor of the pagan religion in Sicily. So, the irritated proconsul replied : «We who despise the name and servitude of Christ, are not noble ?». For Agatha, who was speaking with the strength of her faith and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the moment had come to accept the challenge and she hurled back : «Your lack of nobility is great : you are a slave to desire, you worship wood and stone, idols made by wretched artisans, tools of the devil.» At these words Quintianus roared like a wounded bull. He was unable to retaliate; he did not have the cultural skills of an orator, nor the wisdom and simplicity of the replies of Agatha, inspired as they were by her faith. The only tools he knew well how to use were violence and threats. On that basis he was sure to be the stronger and so he used these means : «Either you sacrifice to the gods or you will be put to death», he threatened breathlessly. But even when confronted by such threats of torture Agatha did not allow herself to be frightened : «Do you wish to make me suffer», she said to him laughingly, «I have been waiting some time for it with joy, it will be my greatest delight.» Then in a firm voice she added :»I shall never worship your gods. Could I worship an lewd Venus, an adulterous Jupiter, a thieving Mercury? But if you think that these are real gods, I suggest to you that you have your wife dress up like Venus.» These words, as heavy as rocks but as sharp as razor blades, were heavy blows to Quintianus’ pride. He only knew how to react with violence and in exchange for the humiliation he had just received he slapped her. Nothing daunted by the blow Agatha replied to him: «You feel offended because I suggest you act like your gods ? Do you see then that not even you hold them in esteem ? Why do you claim that they are honoured and yet punish those who will not worship them ?» He could not argue against these words, but Quintianus could not stop himself and ordered that the girl be locked up in prison.
Prison and Torture
For a day and a night Agatha was confined in a cell within the praetorian palace : having since those times become a place of worship, it was then below ground, dark and damp. The ceiling was high and only an unreachable little window let a glimmer of light filter through its thick iron grating. She was given neither food nor drink and a heavy chain confined her round the ankles. But young Agatha never despaired and she prayed ever more intensely to her celestial Bridegroom.
The next morning she was led before the proconsul for a second time. «What will you do to save yourself ?» Quintianus asked her. «My salvation is in Christ», Agatha replied decisively. Only at the moment did Quintianus realise that whatever attempt to win her over was doomed to failure and in a fit of anger he ordered he to be put to terrible tortures. Agatha’s limbs were stretched, she was beaten, lacerated with an iron comb, her sides were ripped with hot blades. Instead of undermining her resistance, every torment seemed to give her new strength. Then finally Quintianus threw himself against her and ordered his henchmen to cut off her breasts. «Are you not ashamed», Agatha said to him, «to rip from a woman the sources of life by which you yourself were fed, sucking on the breast of your mother ?»
Quintianus’ command was a gesture of rage and revenge : that which he could not obtain, he now wanted to destroy. He wanted to see her suffer through the pain of martyrdom but also through her modesty being violated. He wanted to humiliate her dignity as a woman, but no sign of disturbance crossed her face nor appeared in Agatha’s words «You can torture my body», she said, «but my soul remains untouched.»
The Angel’s Tablet
The Christians who were witnesses to Agatha’s martyrdom and death recovered her body devoutly and covered it with perfumed oils, as was the custom at that time. Then with great veneration they placed it in a stone sarcophagus, which to this very day is still an object of veneration in Catania. Sources say that when the sarcophagus was ready to be sealed a young man came close, dressed in white silk and escorted by a hundred others. Beside the virgin’s head he laid a marble tablet, which today is a pressure relic kept in the church of Saint Agatha in Cremona and which bears the Latin inscription «M.S.S.H.D.E.P.L.», which means «Healthy and lively mind, Honour to God and Freedom for the City». This inscription called also «the Angel’s praise» summarises the characteristics of the Patron Saint of Catania and is also a solemn promise of her protection for the city.
Lucy, a Special Pilgrim
The devout flocked every day to the place in which Saint Agatha was buried and among them one day appeared a special pilgrim. About fifty years had passed since the time of the martyrdom when from the neighbouring city of Syracuse came young Lucy who accompanied her mother Eutichia, who was seriously ill.
Lucy fell to her knees at the tomb of the virgin and martyr’s and prayed fervently for her mother’s recovery. At that moment Saint Agatha appeared to her : «My sister Lucy,» she said to her, «why ask from me what you yourself can give to your mother ?» And she went on to say : «You too, just like me, will suffer martyrdom for your faith in Christ.»
Lucy returned to Syracuse, her heart full of joy and hope. Her mother recovered and the prophecy of martyrdom came true one year later : in fact Saint Lucy was martyred on the 13th December 303 during the persecutions of Diocletian.
In the artistic tradition of Catania as well as in the popular imagination Saint Agatha is shown dressed as a holy child («the Little Saint» as the people of Catania affectionately call her), gentle and delicate, but at the same time she is seen as a powerful saint, proud and fearsome. Her Bust, the most venerated reliquary which is made of silver and enamel, shows us a sweet image of the saint with a calm smile. But the coat of arms of the city sculpted on volcanic stone shows an Agatha with a proud look and a sword unsheathed, ready to leap to the defence of all who put their trust in her; it is an image that strikes fear. In point of fact Agatha is the shy and modest young girl who suffered torture for her love of Christ, who freed her homeland from the turpitude of the times, restoring a sense of decency which the pagan religion had swept away. But she was also capable of swearing to provide protection and to save Catania from lava, pirates, diverse enemies and epidemics. Images of Saint Agatha to be found in their hundreds around the world represent the Saint with the symbols and aspects of her martyrdom : the lily of purity, the martyr’s palm, the pincers, the amputated breast. The most ancient depiction of Saint Agatha is in a mosaic in the church of Sant’Appollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. It dates from the middle of the 6th Century and it shows her standing, dressed in the official robe of a deaconess, namely a long green tunic.
SAVIOUR OF CATANIA
The most important events in the history of Catania are all linked to Saint Agatha : eruptions, earthquakes, sieges, illnesses, terrible and destructive forces, terrifying events before which men found themselves powerless. But the people of Catania, having faith in the promise written on the tablet which the angel delivered to the city, have always called on the Saint for assistance and have always found her protection. On more than fifteen occasions between 252 and 1886 Catania has been saved from destruction by lava. In 535 it was rescued from the Ostrogoths, in 1231 from the fury of Frederick II, in 1575 and again in 1743 from the Plague. Who can count up the favours received over the course of seventeen centuries by the people of Catania and people all around the world who entrust themselves to her ?
The Miracle of the Veil
It was exactly one year after the martyrdom of Saint Agatha that Etna showed signs of being about to destroy Catania with an unstoppable and terrifying tidal wave of lava. Only at the height of the panic did someone remember the inscription on the marble tablet in which the angel had promised help for the city of Catania, the home of Agatha. So gently and with great devotion the people of the city took up the red veil which had been laid over the Saint’s sarcophagus and amid prayers and invocations they carried it in procession to confront the flood of lava. The flaming river of magma halted miraculously, leaving the people unharmed and intact the houses of the villages on the slopes of the volcano. There was jubilation : shouts of praise, celebrations, songs of thanksgiving. It was immediately after this specific event that Agatha was declared a saint. As a result of this first miracle the fame of Saint Agatha spread rapidly across the entire island of Sicily and in no time crossed the straits of Messina to reach into mainland Italy. Her tomb, which was in a small chapel near the site of her martyrdom, became the destination of numerous pilgrims, her name was introduced into the Canon of the Mass and, until the revisions carried out in the name of the Second Vatican Council, it was pronounced every day by the clergy at the head of the list of holy martyrs remembered by the Church. By means of this first miracle brought about by the intercession of Saint Agatha, Catania forged an indissoluble link with her name and between its own destiny and its powerful citizen and from then on knew how to save the city from the destructive rage of Etna and thenceforth it was saved many more times from various enemies.
The Escape from Massacre
On the 25th July 1127 the Moors besieged the coasts of Sicily. Wherever they landed there was slaughter, pillage, rape. When they began to attack along the coast of Catania the inhabitants of the city sought assistance by intercession to Saint Agatha and her favour was not long in coming : Catania was spared that punishment. Another episode has shown once more that the city at the foot of Mount Etna has always enjoyed the attentive protection of Saint Agatha. In 1231 Frederick II of Swabia arrived in Sicily to conquer it. Many cities revolted against him and Catania was among them. Frederick II furiously ordered their destruction but the people of Catania were allowed to have a final Mass celebrated in the Cathedral, before the act of their extermination was carried out, at which ceremony Frederick himself assisted. It was during this service that the Swabian king read a phrase which appeared miraculously on the pages of his prayerbook and which sounded a terrible warning to him : «Do not offend the country of Agatha for its injuries will be avenged.» Immediately he abandoned his plans to destroy the city, revoked the edict which had called for it and contented himself that the populace was obliged to pass between two crossed swords hanging from an arch set up in the centre of the city. This act of submission was sufficient for Frederick and he left Catania and its people unharmed, saved by the intercession of Our Lady of Mercies and Saint Agatha. The city commemorated this relief by erecting a marble frieze which is today at the entrance of the city hall and shows Agatha, seated on a throne like a queen, trampling beneath her feet the bearded head of Frederick II of Swabia.
Lava and Earthquakes
In 1169 an earthquake was the prelude to an enormous eruption. A river of lava flowed down the slopes of Etna and, spreading over the countryside, destroying all in its path, advancing inexorably towards the city. But, just as had happened only one year after the death of Saint Agatha, a procession bearing the sacred veil stopped the river of lava. The people of Catania benefited from similar miracles in 1239, 1381, 1408, 1444, 1536, 1567 and 1635. But the most disastrous eruption occurred in 1669 : a series of breaches opened up along the whole flank of the volcano which spewed forth lava and rocks over a period of sixty days. The lava destroyed many residential areas and entered right into the city, surrounding the moat of the Castello Ursino. In the sacristy of the Cathedral is a fresco, painted ten years after the episode by an eye witness to the tragic events, which depicts the almost apocalyptic scenes of the eruption. When the lava reached a point only 30m from the Cathedral, having spared the places in which Saint Agatha had been imprisoned, martyred and buried, it poured itself into the sea and pushed forward for a further 3km. It was clear evidence of the wish of the Saint of Catania to save those places which were part of her story and her cult. Another extraordinary event is linked to this terrible eruption : a fresco which depicts Saint Agatha in prison and which had been found in a small building against the city walls was carried intact by the river of lava for hundreds of metres. Today that picture is to be found above the high altar of the church of Saint Agatha alla Sciare in Catania. A gift of thanksgiving for the saving of the city from total destruction is the massive votive lamp of silver which is in the centre of Saint Agatha’s chapel in the Cathedral and which Charles II of Spain offered to the city. A violent earthquake shook Catania in 1693. It caused the death of 18,000 people. Not one of the 9,000 people who survived the catastrophe wished to return to the city. Catania would have become a ghost town if a delegation from the bishop carrying the relics of Saint Agatha in procession had not begged the people to remain and rebuild their city. In 1886 a rupture in the side of the mountain burst open at Nicosia, a residential area on the slopes of Mount Etna. On the 24th May Blessed Cardinal Dusmet carried the veil of Saint Agatha in procession and, even though the procession halted part-way, the flow of lava stopped at once. In memory of that event a small altar was set up on the spot.
On several occasions Saint Agatha has laid her hand benignly on the city to protect it also from the Plague. When the Plague began to spread in 1576 not far from Catania, the Senate decided to call on the intercession of their Patron. The relics were carried in procession along the streets of the city and, once they had reached the hospitals where had been taken those people stricken with the Plague, the sick immediately recovered and no further person was afflicted. In 1743 the people of Catania received another sign of protection when a second wave of the Plague began to sweep from Messina towards Catania. A further miracle occurred on this occasion : the relics were brought out in procession and the spread of the Plague was halted. In memory of this extraordinary occurrence, in the port district of the city was erected a column surmounted by a statue of Saint Agatha shown crushing the head of a monster which symbolises the Plague.
The Sad Separation
In 1040 after two centuries of Arab domination the Byzantine forces under General Georgio Maniace tried to reconquer Sicily. Their victory was only temporary, in part because Stefano who was in charge of the Byzantine fleet, committed the grave error of allowing the escape of the Arab military commander, Abd Allah, the most important prisoner of war. For this reason General Maniace inflicted a severe punishment on Stefano, regardless of the fact that the admiral was a member of the imperial family in Constantinople. As redress for this diplomatic incident and to restore the reputation of the imperial house which had already ordered his return to base, Georgio Maniace decided to donate to the ruling family the precious relics of Saint Agatha of Catania and Saint Lucy from Syracuse, who were both of them known and venerated throughout the Mediterranean. Legend has it that a storm at sea prevented the ship’s departure for three days, as if Saint Agatha did not wish to depart from the city in which she had been born and in which she had suffered martyrdom. Eventually the grieving inhabitants of the city, impotent in the face of the conqueror’s decision, watched the precious relics of their Patron Saint pull away aboard a Byzantine ship. A fountain with the effigy of Saint Agatha wearing her Collar and facing East, the direction of her departure, was installed on the waterfront in commemoration on the spot on which the people of Catania had helplessly watched this robbery.
The Return Home
Eighty six years were to pass before the relics of Saint Agatha returned home. They say that it was the Saint herself who wished it, specifically asking this of two soldiers who had a devotion to her, called Gisliberto from Provence and Goselmo from Apulia. The Saint appeared to them several times in their dreams until one night the two of them decided to remove the sacred remains from the church in Constantinople where they were venerated. In order better to avoid detection they cut the body into five parts and then in order to hide it they put them into the quivers in which they usually transported arrows. It is said that they then covered them with rose petals. The two soldiers boarded a ship and set sail for Sicily, but first they stopped in Apulia, the area of Goselmo’s birth, and at his request they left there one precious relic, a breast which is venerated to this day in the church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria of Egypt in Galatina, near Lecce. When they arrived in Messina, the two soldiers alerted Maurizio the bishop of Catania that the relics of Saint Agatha were finally near to the city. The bishop, at that time at his Summer residence in Acicastello, was overjoyed but, before spreading the news about the city, wished to be circumspect and ascertain that the two men really were telling the truth and that what they had brought with them really were the remains of the Saint. He sent to Messina two of his most trusted monks, Oldmanno and Luca, in order to verify the remains : the relics were compared with the reports drawn up at the last time that the relics had been recognised. Only after receiving confirmation from the monks did Bishop Maurizio give the news to the people of Catania. It was the 17th August 1126. The population had been awoken during the night by the ringing of the church bells as if for a festival and they did not waste time by changing their clothes. They poured into the streets dressed as they were, even barefoot and in their nightshirts, to be among the first to welcome the relics which had at long last been restored to them. The historical reunion of the people of Catania with the remains of Saint Agatha took place in the district of Ognina, where subsequently was erected a church, which in 1381 was surrounded by lava but itself emerged unscathed. More recently it was abandoned and allowed to collapse. In further corroboration of the exceptional nature of the events of 1126 the historical documents record a miracle which took place that same night. A woman who had been blind and paralysed from birth acquired her sight and the use of her legs while prostrate before the sacred treasure. The people of Catania were so grateful to the two soldiers that they elected them honorary citizens of the city and made them permanent custodians of the Saint’s relics : their own remains now repose in the Cathedral, set into a wall of the Lady Chapel, alongside those of Saint Agatha, even if the exact location of them is not now clear.
Since 1376 the head and chest of Saint Agatha have been kept in a precious reliquary made of silver finely worked and embellished with engravings and enamels. It has the appearance of a bust size statue with the face coloured as in life by enamel and with blonde hair made of gold; in reality however it is a sophisticated coffer, hollow within, in which are preserved the relics of the head, ribs and some internal organs. The bishop of Catania of the day, a Benedictine monk who originated in Limoges, had commissioned it in France in 1373 from Giovanni Di Bartolo, the goldsmith from Siena. Through the devotion of the faithful the very fine net which covers the Bust has been continuously enriched by jewels, gold objects and precious stones. Among the more than 250 items which cover the reliquary in several layers some are gifts of particular value. The crown itself, a masterpiece of 1,370 grams encrusted with precious stones is, according to an unconfirmed tradition, a gift of King Richard I of England, the Lionheart, who arrived in Sicily in 1190 on his way to the Crusades. In 1881 Queen Margarita of Savoy offered a precious ring, while the Viceroy Ferdinando Acugna gave a massive chain of the 15th Century. Vincenzo Bellini gave to the Patron Saint of his native city a sign of recognition which had been awarded to him, namely the Knight’s Cross of the Legion of Honour. Over the years popes, bishops and cardinals have likewise enriched the treasure of Saint Agatha with chains and pectoral crosses, precious items to be added to the great number of ex votos which the people of Catania continue to offer to their «Little Saint». At the same time as the manufacture of the Bust the goldsmiths of Limoges also produced the reliquaries for her limbs : one for each femur, one for each arm, one for each leg. The reliquaries for the breast and for the veil were made subsequently in 1628. During the Feast of Saint Agatha, through the glass of the cases which protect but do not hide the contents, can be seen the miraculous veil, a piece of dark red silk, 4m long by 50cm wide, which tests have shown to be still soft, as if it had only been made recently. Around the relics of the right hand and the right foot can be made out the body wrappings of the Saint still miraculously intact.
The remains of the Saint had for centuries been kept in a wooden chest, to be found today in the Church of Sant’Agata la Vetere. Since 1576 they have lain in a rectangular sliver casket 85 cm high, 1m 48 cm long and 56 cm wide. The surface is divided into fourteen scenes which depict other saints venerating Agatha, the first virgin martyr of the Church. Inside are also preserved two historical documents : the papal Bull of Urban II which solemnly confirmed the birth of Saint Agatha in Catania rather than in Palermo, as one version would have it, and a parchment dating from 1666 which proclaims Saint Agatha permanent protector of Messina.
The Reliquary of the Breast
Among all the Italian cities of which Saint Agatha is also Patron, Gallipoli and Galatina in Apulia are locked in a singular contest caused by the breast which is a relic of Saint Agatha. A legend which spread throughout Apulia would explain by means of a miracle the presence of the breast in Gallipoli. It is said that on the 18th August 1126 Saint Agatha appeared in a dream to a woman and warned her that her baby was clenching something between its lips. The woman woke up and confirmed what she had dreamt but was unable to persuade the baby to part its lips. She tried for a period of time : then, giving way to despair, she turned to the local bishop. The prelate recited the litany calling on the aid of all the saints and only when he spoke the name of Agatha did the baby open its mouth. From its mouth emerged the breast, evidently that of Saint Agatha. The relic remained in Gallipoli in the basilica dedicated to the Saint from 1126 to 1389 when the Prince Del Balzo Orsini had it moved to Galatina where he had built the church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria of Egypt, in which the relic remains to this day, attached to a convent of Capuchin friars. Other relics such as an elbow and the bone of an arm are to be found in Palermo in the Royal Chapel. In the Monastery of San Salvatore in Messina is another bone from an arm. In Ali in the province of Messina is part of a bone from an arm. In Rome various churches preserve fragments of the veil. In Sant’Agata de Goti in the province of Benevento is preserved a finger. Other small relics are to be found in Sant’Agata di Bianco, Capua, Capri, Siponto, Foggia, Florence, Pistoia, Radicofani, Udine, Venalzio, Ferra. There are also to be found small relics of Saint Agatha outside of Italy : in Spain in Palencia, Oviedo and Barcelona; in France in Cambrai, Hana, Breau Preau and Douai; in Belgium in Brussels, Thienen and Laar; in Antwerp; but also in Luxembourg, the Czech Republic (Prague) Germany (Cologne) and not least at Buckfast Abbey in the West of England.
Each year on the 3rd, 4th and 5th of February Catania offers to its Patron Saint a truly extraordinary Feast which really can only be compared with Holy Week in Seville or Corpus Christi in Cuzco (Peru). During those three days the city forgets about everything else in order to concentrate on the feast, a mixture of devotion and folklore, which attracts up to a million people every year, out of religion or simple curiosity. The first day is reserved for the offering of candles. It is an interesting popular custom that the candles offered have either the height or the weight of the person seeking the Saint’s protection. The most senior dignitaries – religious, civil and military – take part in the procession to offer the candles which covers the short distance from the Church of the Furnace to the Cathedral. Various orders of chivalry also form part of the procession of which the most strongly represented is customarily the Military Order of the Collar of Saint Agatha of Paternò. The procession is led by two carriages which date from the 18th Century and which at one time belonged to the Senate which governed the city, and carried in the procession are eleven giant candlesticks, encasing gigantic candles, which represent the various corporations and guilds. This first day of the Feast concludes with a grandiose firework display at night in the Cathedral Square. Fireworks have a special meaning during the Feast of Saint Agatha, beyond merely expressing popular jubilation, because they are a reminder that the Martyr was tortured on a brazier and watches permanently over the fire of Etna and indeed all fires.
The 4th February is the most moving day, because it marks the city’s first encounter with its Patron Saint. Already in those first hours around dawn the citizens take to the streets of the city. They are the devotees who wear the traditional alb (a votive shirt of white fabric which reaches down to the ankles and tied at the waist with a cord), a cap of black velvet and white gloves and they wave a handkerchief, also white, which is ironed in fine pleats. This represents the nightwear that the inhabitants of Catania were wearing when in far off 1126 they ran to greet the relics that Gisliberto and Goselmo had brought back from Constantinople. But over the centuries the original nightshirt has also assumed the aspect of a penitential robe; some say that the garment of white fabric harks back to the liturgical alb, the black beret reminds us of the ashes with which the penitent covers his head and the cord around the waist represents the flail. Three separate keys, each kept by a different person, are necessary to open the iron grill which protects the relics inside the Cathedral : one is kept by the Treasurer, the second by the Master of Ceremonies and the third by the Prior of the Cathedral Chapter. When the third key releases the last lock of the grill of the little chamber in which are housed the Bust and the shrine is opened, the serene and smiling face of Saint Agatha emerges from the chamber amid the growing exultation of the faithful who grow impatient to see her again. The Bust of Saint Agatha, dazzling with precious stones, is hoisted onto the silver feretory lined with red velvet (red being the colour of her martyrdom but also of royalty) which dates from the Renaissance. Before setting out from the Cathedral on the traditional procession along the streets of the city, Catania greets its Patron with a solemn Mass celebrated by the Archbishop. Amid the explosion of firecrackers the feretory is laden with the precious casket of the relics and borne out to process throughout the city.
The «tour», the procession on the 4th February, goes on for the whole day. The feretory visits the sites of the martyrdom and retraces the episodes in the life of the Saint which are threaded throughout the city : the Cathedral, the places of the martyrdom, traversed at speed, almost as if to spare the Saint the agony of reliving the sad memories. A halt is made at the waterfront from where the citizens, grieving and impotent, had watched the Saint’s relics depart for Constantinople. Then there is a halt at the column of the Plague, which recalls the miraculous accomplishment of Saint Agatha in 1743 when the city was rescued from the Plague. The citizens guide the feretory through the crowds that throng along the streets and in the squares. Up to four or five thousand people will take part in drawing the massive structure. All scrupulously wear the votive robe and taking little steps pull the feretory, which even empty weighs 1,700 kilos, but is further weighed down with the Casket and the Bust and the burden of the candles which can add up to another 3,000 kilos. In a rhythmic chant amid the crowd they call out : «Citizens, viva Saint Agatha», a hosanna which also signifies that «Saint Agatha lives». The «tour» ends deep at night when the feretory returns to the Cathedral.
On the feretory on the 5th February the red carnations of the previous day, which symbolise martyrdom, are replaced by white carnations, which symbolise purity. Late in the morning the Pontifical High Mass is celebrated in the Cathedral. At day rise had already begun the second part of the procession which passes through the streets of the centre of Catania, crossing the ancient Borgo district, which sheltered the refugees from Misterbiano after the eruption of 1669. The most awaited moment is the passage along Via San Giuliano which, because of its steep slope, is the most dangerous part of the whole procession. This represents a true test of the courage of the citizens, but is interpreted – according to how they cope with the problem – as a sign of Heaven’s blessing or a bad augur for the year to come. At night more fireworks mark the close of the festivities. When Catania restores the Bust and the Casket to the shrine in the Cathedral, the white robes are no longer freshly laundered, the faces are marked with fatigue, the muscles hurt, voices are reduced to a whisper. But the satisfaction of having taken part in drawing the body of Saint Agatha in triumph through the streets of Catania fills them with joy and compensates for the fatigue. One has to wait several months (the other feast on the 17th August, which commemorates the return of the relics) or a whole year (the next celebration on the 5th February) to be able to see once more the smile on the Saint’s sweet face who was martyred to preserve both the Faith and Catania.
The Feast of Saint Agatha is inseparable from the traditional processions of the candelabra, gigantic candles encased in artesanal decoration of cherubs of gilded wood, figures saints and scenes of their martyrdom, flowers and flags.
The candelabra precede the feretory of the Saint in the processions but at one time, when there was a lack of electric light, they also served the purpose of lighting up the way for those taking part in the procession. They are carried on the shoulders of a number of bearers who can vary from 4 to 12 men, according to the weight of the wax. The master goldsmiths of the 14th Century produced the Bust of Saint Agatha, a refined and priceless work of art. But the people, forever on a level of intimacy with their Patron, wanted to take part on the festivities with their own creations, objects of artesanal workmanship, which among other things illustrate the various categories of workmen.
Each one of the eleven candelabra has a particular identity. On the shoulders of those who bear it, it brings to life and enlivens its own uniqueness which is made up of various elements : the traditional shape characteristic of the candle itself, the parading of it and the customary wavelike movement of it, the choice of the march which accompanies it.
The candelabra always process in the same order. The procession is opened by the little candle of Monsignor Ventimiglia. The first big candle represents the inhabitants of the district of San Giuseppe La Rena and was made at the beginning of the 19th Century. It is followed by that of the gardeners and florists in Venetian Gothic style. The third in order of appearance is that of the fishmongers, in Late Baroque style with a decoration of saints and little fishes. Its unmistakable march has gained for it the nickname of The Sharpshooter. The candle that follows is that of the greengrocers which has an elegant march and is therefore called The Lady. The candle of the butchers has the four orders of architecture. The candelabra of the bakers is a simple object from the 18th Century without any depictions on it. The candelabra of the pork-butchers and tavern keepers is Art Nouveau, while that of the bakers is the heaviest of all, encrusted with large angels and because of the rhythm of its movement is called The Mama.
The procession ends with the candelabra of the citizens club of Saint Agatha which originated with Cardinal Dusmet. In the past the candelabra were even more numerous : there used to those of the cobblers, the confectioners, the masons, at one stage numbering 28 in all.
In Italy Saint Agatha is patron saint of forty four different places, of which fourteen bear her name. The very first place of which she became patron is Catania. Here the devotion to her is deeply rooted and the name of Agatha, cried out loud, beseeched, glorified, rebounds throughout the story of the city. The letter «A», the initial of this very popular name, crowns the principal monument of the city, the elephant Heliodorus, which is the symbol of the city. Another «A» is carved in stone on the façade of the city hall, it dominates the centre of the civic coat of arms, another is in the middle of the banner of the University. Abroad Saint Agatha is joint patron of the Republic of San Marino. This devotion is of ancient origin : according to tradition on the 5th February itself, the day of the martyrdom of the patron of Catania, a Dalmatian stonemason called Marino, fleeing with other Christians from the persecutions of Diocletian (in the 4th Century), founded the small State on the slopes of Mount Titano. But the saint from Catania is also patron of Rabat in Malta where a local tradition has it that Agatha fled there during the persecutions of Decius. The inhabitants of Rabat will point out in «the catacombs of Saint Agatha» the exact spot where she hid for several days. Here too the devotion has its roots in history : on the 20th July 1551 during the first siege of Malta a statue of Saint Agatha was placed on the walls of the city so that she might protect it. Legend has it that a thousand inhabitants of the city with the heavenly assistance of the saint succeeded in withstanding and breaking the siege by ten thousand Turks. In Spain Agatha is the patron of Villalba del Alcor in Andalucia where can be seen her effigy dressed in precious fabrics. Saint Agatha is also venerated in Jena in the province of Valencia, while in Barcelona the chapel of the Royal Palace is dedicated to her, where the Catholic Monarchs received Christopher Columbus on his return from discovering America; and on the island of Minorca are to be found the ruins of the notable castle of Santa Agueda (Agatha is Agueda in Spanish and Portuguese). Still in Spain, in the province of Segovia, every year on the 5th February is elected a lady mayor and on that day in the town all power is only in the hands of the women. In Portugal Saint Agatha is patron of a city which bears her name in the province of Coimbra. In Germany she is patron of Aschaffemburg. In France many places have taken her as their patron : in Le Fournet a town lost in the forests of Normandy, on the civic coat of arms, in honour of the saint are depicted the palm, the symbol of her martyrdom, and the pincers, the instrument with which she was tortured. In Greece many places have the name of Agatha and the saint is invoked to protect against the dangers of storms. In Argentina where she is the patron of firemen the Cathedral of Buenos Aires is dedicated to her. In various other parts of the planet are places where is a devotion to Saint Agatha, including in America, where there is a Sainte Agathe des Monts in Quebec and a Sainte Agathe in Manitoba near Winnipeg in Canada. But even in India, in Viayawala, there is a shrine dedicated to her. It would be an impossible task to try to tot up just how many places there are around the world where there is devotion to Saint Agatha.
At one time Saint Agatha was considered to be the protector of bell-founders and of pan-makers. This tradition arose according to some because when calamities occurred it was the custom to ring the church bells. Thus the saint who was frequently called upon to protect against calamities was designated protectress of those who used the tools to raise the alarm. But according to others her protection was sought by these same foundry men so that the virgin from Catania might protect the melting of the metal and thus the perfect realisation of the bells.
The veneration of Saint Agatha as patron saint of weavers arose from a legend which has transformed Agatha into a kind of Christian Penelope. The story tells how in order to postpone marriage to an odious and offensive man – surely Quintianus himself ? – Agatha convinced him to wait until she had completed embroidering a canvas on which she was working. But as Ulysses wife did with her own suitors, by day Agatha sewed and at night unpicked, so the embroidery was never completed.
The devotion to Saint Agatha as a saint to protect against fire was widespread in the Middle Ages. At that time it was said that is the saint would protect against fire from a volcano it was all the more reasonable that she would be able to protect against all sorts of fires. This ability to banish fire spread the veneration of Agatha across national borders. For example in Lyons in France on the 5th February the citizens have blessed a loaf of bread to be thrown into the flames in the event of a fire. Still in the Middle Ages the belief spread that Saint Agatha would protect against whatever form of natural disaster : floods, tempests, epidemics and famine.
Against Women’s Ailments
Ever more frequently women today turn to Saint Agatha, whose martyrdom included having her breasts cut off, seeking protection against illnesses and tumours of the breast and in general against all sorts of female ailments. Cases are numerous of miraculous cures after intercession to Saint Agatha in the event of illnesses diagnosed as incurable. Moreover Saint Agatha protects recent mothers who have breast problems and pregnant women seeking a happy delivery and the grace of being able to give their own milk to their children.
SITES OF THE CULT
Sant’Agata al Carcere (Saint Agatha in Prison)
Leaving Via Cappuccini in Catania we find a delightful small square where are the imposing remains of the city walls from the time of the Emperor Charles V and there stands the church which was built over the prison where the patron saint of the city, Saint Agatha, was held during her trial, where she was taken after her martyrdom, healed by the Apostle Peter and where she breathed her last on the 5th February 251 AD.
It is possible that it formed part of the Roman administrative complex where is presumed to have been the official residence of her persecutor, the proconsul Quintianus.
The doorway to this baroque church is mediaeval (perhaps from the Swabian period of 1241) and originally formed part of the façade of the ancient Norman cathedral, rescued from ruins of the earthquake of 1693; it was removed by Gian Battista Vaccarini, who supervised the construction of the new church which he had designed, and until 1751 it was situated in the Palace of the Senate.
What remains of that edifice is a rectangular opening (5.9m x 3.65m<) today to the right of the nave of the church, whose thick walls (2m) can be justified by their original detentive purpose. In the 1960s another space was discovered alongside the prison at a level lower than the current floor level and consisting of three apses, of which the central one is rectangular and preceded by a small transept, which is placed up against the wall of Charles V.
This could be a lower prison, reserved for those awaiting the death sentence, or a Christian or pagan basilica, but it also could be the gladiators’ baths. These three places constructed of massive blocks of volcanic rock and vaulted in brick may have belonged to private bathhouses or may even have been part of the palace complex, the seat of the supreme representative of Rome which is traditionally located above the existing amphitheatre, on the slope of the hill called Montevergine.
Outside the prison to the left of the current doorway a shell made from volcanic rock preserves the impression of Saint Agatha’s footsteps according to tradition.
The Holy Prison was enlarged to include the 16th Century walls that run along that part and in which was opened a small window on the outside of which a plaque recalls Saint Agatha and the Apostle Peter who healed her and which invites the passer-by to stop and honour the holy place. A relief panel depicting the two figures half size is to be found above the window.
During the feast of Saint Agatha, the 3rd-5th February, these places take on a new lease of life : the slop of the Capuccini is covered in white, being the colour of the robe of the devotees; it is almost impossible to get into the prison because of the numbers of the people who go to visit these places.
Santa’Agata la Vetere (The Ancient Church of Saint Agatha)
Passing along Via Garofalo, we turn left into Via Santa Maddalena and enter a small square where we find one of the most ancient churches in Catania : Sant’Agata la Vetere.
After the issue of the edict by Emperor Constantine in 313AD and ordered by Saint Severinus, the bishop in those first years of peace, a start was made on the construction of the church in 380 AD and it was completed in 436AD to replace the modest little edifice erected by the holy bishop Everius in 264AD, almost hidden in the ruins of the praetorian palace.
The bishop set up his throne there and transferred the relics and the sarcophagus to it, which he sealed possibly around 436AD. It was the custom of the first Christians to bury the martyrs quickly and close by the site of their martyrdom, if this was outside the walls, to escape profanation.
Here in the apse of the church is kept that ancient sarcophagus of white marble where, according to tradition, the body of the young martyr had been laid to rest (the church itself had been further to the South in an area used as a burial ground from Hellenistic times until the Christian era). The ancient sarcophagus dates back to pagan times and is of exquisite workmanship. Along its sides have been sculpted scenes which are incompatible with the Christian religion, such as the Hunt for the Boar Calidonius and the Battle of the Centaurs. On the side which faces the visitor is clearly visible the pagan depiction of two griffins in profile (the symbol of strength and courage) either side of a candelabrum (a burning spirit), later taken up as symbols of the virtues attributable to the Saint.
There are interesting areas below ground including a crypt where along the walls have been excavated numerous niches with in the centre an ancient altar above which is a well preserved fresco which shows the spiritual benefits for the souls of the departed of the Eucharistic sacrifice.
The Cathedral of Saint Agatha
The Cathedral Square, open 8.00-12.00 and 15.00-18.00, tel. 00 39 095 320044.
Erected in 1092 and re-built after 1693 by Giovan Battista Vacarini, Girolamo Palazzotto, Antonio Battagli, Carmelo Battaglia Santangelo, Carmelo Sciuto Patti.
The Baptism of Christ, fresco of the 18th Century by Giovanni Tuccari (far end of the right aisle); the Martyrdom of Saint Febronia (1733), oil on canvas by Guglielmo Borremans (1st altar of the right aisle); Saint Rosalia (1733) oil on canvas by Guglielmo Borremans (2nd altar of the right aisle); Saint Anthony of Padua (1733), oil on canvas by Guglielmo Borremans (3rd altar of the right aisle); Triumph of Saint Agatha with holy martyrs and bishops of Catania (1628), frescoes by Giambatista Corradini (central apse); Saint Peter consecrates Saint Berillo, oil on canvas from the early 18th Century by Antonio Subba (6th altar of the left aisle); Martyrdom of Saint Agatha, oil on canvas from the end of the 16th Century by Filippo Paladini (5th altar of the left aisle); Saint Antony the Abbot (1733), oil on canvas by Guglielmo Borremans (4th altar of the left aisle); Saints Gaetan and Philip Neri, oil on canvas from the 18th Century by Giovanni Tuccari (3rd altar of the left aisle); Saint Francis de Paola, oil on canvas from the 18th Century by Giuseppe Guarnaccia (4th altar of the left aisle); Saint George (1624), oil on canvas by Girolamo La Manna.
Notable sculptures : tomb monument of Vincenzo Bellini (1876) by Giambattista Tassara (3rd pillar on the right); marble doorway of the 16th Century with scenes of the life of the Madonna by Giambattista Mazzola (entrance to the Lady Chapel, right aisle); sarcophagus of Queen Constance of Aragon of the 14th Century (Lady Chapel); sarcophagus from the Roman period (Lady Chapel); monument to Viceroy Ferdinando de Acuña (1495) by Antonello Freri (Saint Agatha’s Chapel); monument to the Gravina Cruyllas family from the 18th Century (Blessed Sacrament Chapel); marble doorway of the 16th Century with scenes of Our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection and a lunette of the Pietà by Domenico Mazzola (entrance to the Chapel of the Crucifix).
Works of Gold
Reliquary Bust of Saint Agatha by Giovanni di Bartolo (1373, treasury of Saint Agatha’s Chapel); Casket of the relics of Saint Agatha, end 15th / 16th Century renovated in the 18th Century (treasury of Saint Agatha’s Chapel).
Ornaments and other notable works : wooden choir from the end of the 16th Century by Scipione di Guido; organ of French manufacture, Jeanpierre Jaquot di Rambervilliers (1877, rear of façade); sacristy cupboards of the 18th Century (sacristy); stained glass by Duilio Cambellotti (1959, apse).
The Cathedral of Catania was erected at the request of the Norman kings between 1092 and 1094. The cathedral which preceded it is a matter of conjecture : local historians in the 18th Century thought that it might be identified with the church of Sant’Agata la Vetere which more recent studies lay claim to the existence on the current site of a cathedral during the High Middle Ages. It is certain that under the Normans the so called Platea Magna assumed a focal importance for the city : the centre of the original Catania lay in an area further to the North-West, on the slopes of the hill called Montevergine where today is the complex of the Benedictine monastery; in the High Middle Ages, under the Byzantines, the area was still very much to the side as it remained under the Muslims, even though one begins to see signs of residences being built in that area. Finally at the end of the 11th Century the area assumed strategic importance thanks to the presence at its centre of the fortified Norman church, or rather a church cum fortress which represented equally both the spiritual and temporal powers, closely linked in Norman times. The church with its annexed buildings contained within the walls of the archiepiscopal compound dominated the view of the city for anyone arriving by sea and it certainly protected the security of the inhabitants of the city, having finally escaped decades of subjection to the Muslims, the masters of Mediterranean. The construction is also noteworthy of ramparts built by successive regimes of similar dimensions beside the huge cathedral : at the beginning of the 12th Century Frederick II of Swabia erected another castle to dominate the seafront, the Castello Ursino, and in the first decades of the following century the Aragonese constructed the civic Loggia alongside the Cathedral (the Palace of the Elephants). The building suffered grave damage during the earthquake of 1118 when the high bell tower collapsed which rose above the North side; but with the earthquake of 1693 the general collapse was so great that the almost total reconstruction of the building was called for. A further contributing factor to the almost total remaking of the building was the taste of the time which demanded the construction of a building of such importance along lines quite different from those of mediaeval times. In 1729 Bishop Galletti called the most notable architect to lead the re-building, Giovan Battista Vaccarini from Palermo, who succeeded in reopening the cathedral for worship in 1761. During those years Girolamo Palazzotto was also involved, another important architect whose contribution to the reconstruction included in part the idea for the layout of the building and its internal decoration. But the works were still not finished and thus on the cathedral building site we find the architect Carmelo Battaglia Santangelo who was active there until 1804. Between 1867 and 1869 the bell tower was raised according to the designs of Carmelo Sciuto Patti. Others were engaged on the interior of the cathedral and during the 19th and 20th Centuries this was subject to significant transformations, including which the replacement of the High Altar in recent times.
A large balustrade, the work of Carmelo Battaglia, decorated with statues of saints from the 18th Century surrounds the cathedral complex. The façade carried out according to the designs of Vaccarini dominates the entire square and creates the backdrop to a notional stage which on the opposite side, following the axis of Via Garibaldi (formerly Via San Filippo and then Ferdinandea) terminates with the Garibaldi Gate. It is in three parts and in three orders : three statues decorate it which represent Saint Agatha, Saint Berillo and Saint Euplius. The church is in the form of a Latin cross with three aisles separated by large pilasters. The transept and the area of the apse retain the most ancient architectonic evidence, Norman and 15th Century : in the transept on the right hand side opens the Lady Chapel which preserves the 15th Century doorway of white marble decorated with scenes from the life of the Madonna by Giambattista Mazzola. On the left hand side is the Chapel of the Crucifix which has another 15th Century doorway of marble with scenes of Our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection surmounted by a lunette of the Pietà by Domenico Mazzola. The apses retain still visible traces of the Norman structure with their ogival arches : between these are inserted, to the right, the chapel of Saint Agatha where is the treasury which contains the relics of the patron saint of Catania with its 13th Century Bust by Giovanni Di Bartolo from Siena and the Casket of her relics. The main apse with its altar which has been re-adapted several times was frescoed at the beginning of the 16th Century by Giambattista Corradini with scenes from the Triumph of Saint Agatha and holy martyrs and bishops of Catania; again in 1959 Duilio Cambellotti designed the window in the centre of the apse. In the left hand apse is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. In the sacristy is to be found a fresco by Platania which depicts the earthquake of 1669. The entirety of the interior, whether by its architectonic structure or by its programme of paintings and sculptures, expresses the dominant moods of various periods and different styles which do not always fit in together: to appreciate each element in its entirety is the best way to read the cathedral of Catania. One further point of note: on entering the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace which opens onto Via Vittorio Emanuele you can admire the structure of the walls of the original Norman apses.
On the spot where Saint Agatha was burnt to death in a furnace a small church has been built with a single nave. Still visible today through a port-hole, in the chapel on the right hand side, is the furnace which at the time of the persecutions was used for the tortures and was the place where Saint Agatha was burnt in her martyrdom. The church of the Furnace, which the people of Catania also call «Carcara» and which is also dedicated to Saint Blaise, was only a simple chapel at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. In 1098 it was enlarged slightly but they could not build beyond the current dimensions because of the bastions of the Roman prison which flank it. It was rebuilt in 1589 and remained miraculously intact during the eruption of 1669. From this spot, rich with religious and historical importance, on the 3rd February of each year (the Feast of Saint Blaise) sets out the solemn procession to offer candles to the patron saint of the city.
The Church of Saint Agatha in Cremona
The Angel’s Tablet is venerated in the collegiate basilica of Saint Agatha in Cremona. It is to be found so far North because, it is said, a priest from Cremona at the time of the Lombard invasions profited from the general mayhem and ran off with it. From that moment the little tablet has been an object of very great devotion by the people of Cremona including their bishops and cardinals. On the 5th February of each year and on the Sunday which follows it celebrations are held in honour of the Saint. The relic is preserved inside an original shrine, a wooden casket 112cm high and 69cm wide, painted on both sides by an unknown artist towards the end of the 13th Century. On one side are shown scenes from the life and martyrdom of Saint Agatha, on the other the Madonna and Child surmounted by a picture of Pentecost.
The Angel’s Tablet, protected behind an elegant grill of the 17th Century, has never ever been opened during all these centuries and like a shell it continues to hide its precious pearl within it. In 1575 Saint Charles Borromeo came to Cremona with the express intention of verifying the contents of this sealed reliquary but he did not dare to open it. He merely knelt in profound veneration before such a wonder. Only towards the middle of the 1970s, during restoration works, was an X-ray made of the shrine. It was finally proven that inside is a strange object but even to this day no one has wanted to violate the mystery which surrounds this precious relic.