Legend has it that St. Agatha started off as a noble young woman living in 3rd century Sicily. Apparently she had dedicated her ‘virginity’ to Jesus and this annoyed a powerful pagan official who wanted it for himself. When Agatha repeatedly refused the official’s advances, because of her religious convictions, he had her arrested, tortured and finally killed. The legend claims that the fiendish torture included the mutilation of her youthful breasts.
Since then, St. Agatha has often been depicted iconographically carrying her sliced-off breasts on a platter, as by Bernardino Luini’s Saint Agatha (1510-15) in the Galleria Borghese, Rome. The shape of her amputated breasts, especially as depicted in artistic renderings, gave rise to her attribution as the patron saint of bell-founders and bun-makers. More recently, she has been venerated as patron saint of breast cancer patients.
A huge annual festival to commemorate the all-too-short life of St. Agatha that takes place in Catania, Sicily, from February 3 to 5. The festival culminates in a great all-night procession through the city for which hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents turn out. The saint’s statue and relics are placed in a monstrously heavy silver carriage which is then hauled through the streets by several thousand men (penitents?). This feat is preceded by plenty of eating, drinking and merry-making in young Agatha’s honour.
It’s reported that during feast, that Sicilian young girls buy a scented rose, kiss it, and conceal it between their budding breasts, at the wonder of whose coming they gaze in eager fondness. They then ask a blessing of St. Agatha who is reputed to have perfect empathy with their aspirations.
Here in Australia, the feast-day of St. Agatha is celebrated much more modestly again on February 5th, when, it is rumoured, the Catholic faithful in some traditional parishes gather, after a special mass, and are served two ‘chocolate breasts’ on a plate with tea or coffee.
For discretion’s sake, the chocolate symbols of Agatha’s suffering (sold year-round in our stores and supermarkets) are not marketed as ‘breasts’ but euphemistically as ‘Eskimo Snowballs.’ Any observant person, however, will see that they are not ball-shaped, but breast-shaped, complete with slightly protruding nipple.
These small domes of white marshmallow — obviously representing breast-milk — are covered by light chocolate, which could have reference to Agatha being Sicilian and therefore of a swarthy or olive complexion. Then, for some reason, this symbolic delicacy is covered with desiccated coconut – suggesting a lacy bra cup or perhaps a heavy case of dandruff, depending on your turn of mind.
So, on St Agatha’s Day, as we enjoy the comforting taste of these breast-like confections, the Catholic Church would have us remember this poor martyr and the importance of female breasts to us all — that they are a source of nourishment, comfort, happiness and delight regardless of our gender, and therefore, to be valued and cared for from the time they sweetly appear.