So the thing about saints is most of them suffered horrible deaths in the martyrdom that got them to sainthood. There’s a reason St. Blaise, whose feast day we celebrated on the 3rd of February, a patron saint of wool carders, I felt it was too gruesome to explain. And now today on the 5th we celebrate St. Agatha and when it comes to St. Agatha, there are traditions in Italy for her feast day that would make no sense unless you knew about the martyrdom she suffered for her faith. It is no less terrible. And so let me tell you and get it over with: her breasts were severed and then she was roasted over live coals. People were absolutely terrible back then. This was the 3rd century, and it was in Sicily, in Catania. St. Agatha is now patroness of Catania, and she is invoked for protection from volcanic eruptions (perhaps due to the roasting) and earthquakes, as well as for protection from breast disease.
And so in Italy St. Agatha is honored on her day by the baking of special round loaves of bread and by marzipan confections that are unapologetically meant to evoke the breasts of the saint. The marzipan breasts, called minne de vergine, traditionally were made by the nuns of Catania, and it is in these strange customs that the subtle dance between pagan and Christian in Italy is so fascinating. Italy, once the land of the Roman gods and goddesses, became eventually the home of the Roman church… but those gods and goddesses were not easy to evict, and many of them just evolved into the saints of the Church. Italians love their saints: San Antonio, San Giuseppe, Santa Lucia… and today, on the 5th of February, Sant’Agata. The saints are called upon by Italians as much as or perhaps even more so than the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And we eat strange ritualistic foods based upon their lives and works, and their deaths. Marzipan pastries in the shape of breasts made by Catanese nuns? This is probably a big part of what makes Lutherans so nervous around Catholics. We are a somewhat dramatic people.
In Catania, they’ve been celebrating the feast of St. Agatha for a couple of days by now, and it will all conclude tonight. There have been processions throughout the city of large carriages and many spectacular candelore––enormous towers with lit candles depicting scenes from the saint’s life––over the course of these three nights. The candelore are paraded and danced through the streets of Catania to shouts of “Evviva Sant’Agata!” by men in full costume, the towers hoisted upon their many shoulders.
There is a famous scene in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gatopardo (The Leopard, in its English translation) in which Don Fabrizio looks over a vast table of Sicilian desserts that include these minne de vergine, the breasts of St. Agatha. He asks for some and receives them: pastries made of sponge cake with a mound of sweet ricotta cream on top, then covered in marzipan and dotted with a cherry, and he beholds them on his plate. It reminds him of the famous paintings of St. Agatha presenting her own severed breasts on a plate. He asks, “Why ever didn’t the Holy Office forbid these puddings when it had the chance?”
Who knows. But I suspect the Romans would have understood.
Image: Sant’Agata presenting her breasts on a plate, by Piero della Francesca, 15th century, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.