Patronal feast of Saint Agatha (Catania)

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The Patronal feast of Saint Agatha is the most important religious festival of Catania, Sicily. It commemorates the life of what is the city's patron saint, Agatha of Sicily. It takes place annually from 3 to 5 February and on 17 August.

Saint Agatha of Sicily (231 AD – 251 AD) is a Christian saint and virgin martyr. Her memorial is on 5 February. Agatha was born at Catania, Sicily, and she was martyred in approximately 251. She is one of seven women, who, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, are commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass. She is the patron saint of Catania, Molise, Malta, San Marino, and Zamarramala, a municipality of the Province of Segovia in Spain. She is also the patron saint of breast cancer patients, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders, bakers, fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna.

One of the most highly venerated virgin martyrs of Christian antiquity, Agatha was put to death during the persecution of Decius (250–253) in Catania, Sicily, for her determined profession of faith. Her written legend comprises "straightforward accounts of interrogation, torture, resistance, and triumph which constitute some of the earliest hagiographic literature", and are reflected in later recensions, the earliest surviving one being an illustrated late 10th-century passio bound into a composite volume in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, originating probably in Autun, Burgundy; in its margin illustrations Magdalena Carrasco detected Carolingian or Late Antique iconographic traditions. Although the martyrdom of Saint Agatha is authenticated, and her veneration as a saint had spread beyond her native place even in antiquity, there is no reliable information concerning the details of her death. According to Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea of ca. 1288, having dedicated her virginity to God, fifteen-year-old Agatha, from a rich and noble family, rejected the amorous advances of the low-born Roman prefect Quintianus, who then persecuted her for her Christian faith. He sent Agatha to Aphrodisia, the keeper of a brothel. 

The madam finding her intractable, Quintianus sent for her, argued, threatened, and finally had her put in prison. Amongst the tortures she underwent was the cutting off of her breasts with pincers. After further dramatic confrontations with Quintianus, represented in a sequence of dialogues in her passio that document her fortitude and steadfast devotion. Saint Agatha was then sentenced to be burnt at the stake, but an earthquake saved her from that fate; instead, she was sent to prison where St. Peter the Apostle appeared to her and healed her wounds. Saint Agatha died in prison, according to the Legenda Aurea in "the year of our Lord two hundred and fifty-three in the time of Decius, the emperor of Rome." 

The earlier dates commemorate the martyrdom of the Catanaian saint, while the latter date celebrates the return to Catania of her remains, after these had been transferred to Constantinople by the Byzantine general George Maniaces as war booty, having then remained there for 86 years.

The Festa 

3rd February

The first day of celebration, the 3th of February, develops itself into three distinct moments: the long and solemn Midday procession for "the offering of wax" to which civil, religious and militar authorities all attend bearing the standards of the City, the Province, and the University. Leaving St. Agatha' s (the Church of St. Agata alla Fornace ) to the Cathedral, the procession cuts through two lines of a huge crowd. Eleven "candelore" (large candleshaped structures), symbolizing the guilds, and two carriages belonging to the old Catanian Senate, bring up the rear. In the afternoon, at 3.00 PM, St. Agatha's international cross-country race takes place through the old and new streets of the town-centre. Finally, in the evening, later than 8.00 PM, grandious fireworks are on display in piazza Duomo.

4th February
For many, the second day of the festa is the most special. Sant'Agata's reliquary statue is carried out of the Cathedral and through the crowded streets of the city, in a day-long procession that stops off at all the places that have a connection with the saint's life, including the Church of Sant'Agata alla Fornace, site of her martyrdom. As evening falls,the statue is taken back to her resting place in the Cathedral for a well-earned rest.

5th February
after a solemn religious service in the Cathedral, at around 6pm, the reliquary statue of Sant'Agata is once more brought out of the Cathedral for another tour of the city, The Saint's image travels along another route, through the old town centre: the carriage proceeds slowly along the elegant via Etnea. The eleven, richly adorned "candelore" lead the procession, being followed by 700 devotees holding torches: then the white river of devotees follows. They all drag the "vara" and sing the praises of the Patron ("We are all, all devotees. Citizens, long live St. Agatha!"). The City bell tolls, announcing the Mayor's homage to the Saint. The stream of people puts on a protracted and fascinating tableau vivant. In the evening, people crowd together again in piazza Borgo, in order to attend further fireworks (also known as "the fireworks of the evening of three"); soon after the crowd follows and escorts the "candelore" in an "endurance race" along the slope of "salita di San Giuliano". Time goes by, and the setting sun gives way to the night: St. Agatha patiently awaits for the end of the contest, at the crossing of via Etnea and via di San Giuliano: it's the "final pull", that should bring the festivity to an end, with an enthusiastic applause of relief. The race is an event mostly reserved to young people: strong arms and sturdy legs are needed to drag the several tons of the "vara".


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