Saint Agatha's name means "good," and she is said to have been a wealthy young woman of noble birth who lived in Catania during the late Roman empire. When she converted from paganism to Christianity, she took a sacred vow to remain a chaste virgin. Unfortunately, Quintian, who was then the Roman governor of Sicily, desired to marry her, and when she refused, citing her vow of virginity, he orfered her to be thrown into a brothel, where she was forced into sexual slavery. Miraculously, her virginity was restored by God after every sexual encounter to which she submitted. Quintian, seeing that she was protected in this way, next had her confined to a prison.
While imprisoned, Agatha was tortured in a most grotesque way: her breasts were torn off with iron pincers. However, her humility and gentleness succeeded in converting some of her jailers to Christianity. Seeing this, her Roman captors retaliated by sentencing her to death. She was sent the stake to be burned alive, but a miraculous earthquake occured, and she was returned to her cell, never having been touched by the flames. She died in prison on the 5th of February, 251.
Saint Agatha's piteous martyrdom was so well-known during the Medieval and Renaissance eras that many images were painted of her. During that time, the hagiography of Agatha usually focussed on her holding a metal plate or round tray upon which her severed breasts were openly displayed, as in the work shown here of Cariani (Giovanni Busi), painted in 1516-1517. In cariani's image, Saint Agatha bears a palm leaf, signifying Catholic martyrdom, and shows the viewer the breasts that were torn off of her body.
Italian holy cards of the Victorian and modern eras generally conceal the implications of Saint Agatha's terrible physical pain. She is commonly shown standing and fully clothed, quietly touching or pointo to her bosom, all the while surrounded by symbol-laden images such as the palm frond of martyrdom, the white lily of virginity, and, incongruously, in such an idyllic setting, the chains of her captivity, the iron pincers of her torment, and the waiting bonfire from which she was miraculously saved,
In mainstream Catholic practice, prayers for the intercession of Saint Agatha can be somewhat generic and may fail to mention both her trial by rape and her connection to mastectomy and breast cancer. Here is a typical petition, as found on the back of a Saint Agatha holy card:
Prayer to Saint Agatha
O Heavenly Father,
Who raised Agatha
to the dignity of Sainthood,
we implore Your Divine Majesty
by her intercession
to give us health
of mind, body, and soul.
Free us from all those things
which hold us bound to this earth,
and let our spirit, like hers,
rise to your heavenly courts.
Through Jesus Christ,
Your Son, our Lord,
Who lives and reigns
with You, forever.
Here is a specific prayer to Saint Agatha against sexual abuse:
Saint Agatha, you suffered sexual assault and indignity
because of your faith.
Help heal all those who are survivors of sexual assault
and protect those women who are in danger.
This prayer invokes Agatha's's legendary aid against both rape and breast cancer:
Prayer to Saint Agatha
O St. Agatha,
who withstood the unwelcome advances
from unwanted suitors,
and suffered pain and torture
for your devotion to Our Lord,
we celebrate your faith, dignity, and martyrdom.
Protect us against rape and other violations,
guard us against breast cancer
and other afflictions of women,
and inspire us to overcome adversity.
O St. Agatha, Virgin and Martyr,
mercifully grant that we who venerate your sacrifice,
may receive your intercession.
Related pages of interest:
- Catholic Patron Saints for various occupations and conditions
- Gods and Saints as Lucky Figures
- The Relationship between Luck, Protection, Religion, and Magic
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