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Saint Agata: art in Palermo and a festival in Catania

Posted by Suzanne on 10 Mar 2017



Paintings in Palermo, and the tragic tale of a young, pious woman

Three 14th and 15th century paintings in Sicily’s Regional Art Gallery in Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo -  Jacopo di Michele’s Sant’Agata; a 15thcentury triptych showing Saints Agata and Barbara; and Tommaso di Vigilia’s Madonna with Saints Agata and Lucia - are beautiful and stirring.

They are richly coloured and tell the tragic story of a young woman Agata, martyred in Sicily sometime in the early centuries of Christianity.

I came across these paintings late last September, while wandering through Palazzo Abatellis.

jacopo di michele's sant'agata (agata is on the left)


15th century triptych madonna with saints barbara and agata (agata is on the right)


tommaso di vigilia's madonna with saints including agata and lucia in the central panel


Saint Agata's feast: undying devotion and special cakes

Elevated to the otherworldly state of sainthood, Agata is the patron saint and protector of the baroque lava stone city of Catania.

She is the reason for the much loved annual festival on February 5th inspired by a story centuries old. It is filled with solemn parading, fireworks, reverence and candle light and pastries shaped like small breasts.

(I have never been in Catania at the time of Sant’Agata’s feast day. One year I would like to spend a few days there to soak up the spectacle of her feast.)


Saint Agata's emblem in art

In art her emblem is usually a dish with her breasts...' ( David Farmer's Oxford Dictionary of Saints) and it is the image of her breasts that is depicted in the 15th century triptych of the Madonna with Saints Agata and Barbara and in Tommaso de Vigilia's painting in Palazzo Abatellis.

In the panel above, of the beautiful 15th century triptych, Saint Agata, head tilted and crowned, gazes out to the viewer.

She is holding her breasts in a long stemmed chalice with one hand, while the other holds a pair of menacing looking heavy iron pincers. 

Images of breasts on plates and a pair of pincers tell something of the gruesome treatment of this young woman who would not renounce her beliefs. 'She was tortured by rods, rack, and fire. Lastly her breasts were cut off...'. (Oxford Dictionary of Saints)

She was ‘invoked against fire, particularly the eruptions of Mount Etna; also against diseases of the breast; she was also the patron of bell founders'.

The imposing Cathedral of Catania is dedicated to her.

In Jacopo di Michele’s vibrantly coloured painting above, Agata is holding pincers and, a book.

Her young face looks grave and yet the colours: the clear red of the book she holds and her pink cloak, edged in gold, set against a background of speckled orange give a vitality.


And, in Tommaso di Vigilia’s detailed painting (above) Agata looks noble and, her breasts rest on a simple pewter like dish.





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