Saint Agatha of Sicily, Virgin and Martyr (Died 251): The Iconography

Narrative Images

In the first part of Agatha's story, she spurns the pagan provost Quintianus' offer of marriage, so he consigns her to a brothel to soften her resolve. But the madam finds her intractable, so the provost calls her back to him, argues and threatens, and finally has her put in prison.

The next day he has her stretched on a device that Caxton renders as "a tree" (that is, a beam or pole) and Ryan as "the rack." Most narrative images ignore the device, but one manuscript illumination envisions a horizontal beam held up between the Y-shaped tops of two trees that have been trimmed for the occasion. Another image, a German fresco, shows the saint hanging from a similar but more permanent-looking structure of hewn wood. The same kind of structure appears in an illumination of a 10th or 11th century Passio Sanctae Agathae.1

Both those images actually show Agatha at the next stage of her passion, the cutting off of her breasts, which is the most common element in the narrative images (example). The implement used is normally a pair of pincers (example), sometimes two pair (example).

When the saint still refuses to deny her faith, Quintianus orders that she be imprisoned without food, drink, or medicine for her wounds. At this point she is visited by St. Peter in the guise of an old man. In a 10th- or 11th-century Passio Sanctae Agathae, Peter simply brings Agatha new breasts.1 But the Golden Legend's account (from the 13th) is more complicated. Not recognizing Peter, Agatha refuses human healing because "I have my Lord Jesus Christ, and he by a single word can cure everything. . . . If he so wills, he can cure me instantly." Peter reveals himself, tells her she is healed in Jesus' name, and vanishes. It is not until then that she prays and finds that her breasts have been restored.

Despite the widespread influence of the Golden Legend, I have found only two images that follow faithfully this complex account of Agatha's cure, one by depicting the saint's refusal and one dramatizing Peter's reply. The few other images I have found, two by Alessandro Turchi, and one by Giovanni Lanfranco, go with the earlier version in which Peter heals the saint directly.

Not surprisingly, the breasts figure in most narrative images of St. Agatha. The cutting implement is usually a pair of pincers (example), sometimes two pair (example), although these are not mentioned in the Golden Legend's account of her martyrdom.

Churches dedicated to St. Agatha face the problem of how to present the patron's lurid tortures to the public. Throwing caution to the winds, St. Agatha's in Trastevere has a large canvas behind the main altar showing the removal of her breasts in full detail. Saint Agatha's in Sant'Agata da Feltra also has a large canvas of the saint behind the main altar, but this one is more PG-rated. Presented by another saint, she offers the breasts, on a plate, to the Virgin and Child. She is fully dressed and has a figure ample enough to remind one of the restoration of her body that night in prison. The breasts on the platter are abstract enough that one does not have to think about them.


Portraits

One very early portrait presents Agatha without attributes in the dress of an imperial noblewoman. Eastern images continue to present her in variations of this manner. In later western images she will usually be holding some combination of severed breasts (usually nipple-up on a plate, as at left), pincers (example), and a palm branch. As a virgin she is usually portrayed bare-headed (exception) and with long, flowing hair more often blond than not (example).


St. Agatha and St. Lucy

The legend of St. Lucy (html or pdf) begins with a visit to the sepulchre of St. Agatha, who intercedes with Christ to heal Lucy's mother of a bloody flux. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a painting of this episode by Giovanni di Bartolommeo Cristiani.


Feast day: February 5

At left, "St. Agatha" - Zurbarán

Hagiography:
Golden Legend: html pdf
Bokenham 157-66
Early South English Legendary 193-97


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1 See Winstead, 31.