Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Legend of St Agatha

Like many of the ancient virgin martyrs, Saint Agatha was made to suffer for the faith because she refused to marry a pagan who wished to marry her. In her case, it was a man of consular rank named Quintianus, who tried to use the Emperor Decius’ edict of persecution against her. The story of her martyrdom is summed up thus by the 1529 Breviary of the Roman Curia, the predecessor of the Breviary of St Pius V. When Agatha was sent to prison, after various torments and interrogations,
She stretched out her hands to the Lord and said, “O Lord who made and created me, and have kept me from my infancy, … who took from me the love of the world, who have kept my body from pollution, who made me to overcome the executioner’s torments, iron, fire and chains, who gave me the virtue of patience in the midst of torments, I pray Thee to receive my spirit. For it is time, Lord, that Thou command me to leave this world, and come to Thy mercy. Saying this, she sent forth her blessed spirit. The Christian people, taking away her holy body, set it in a new sepulcher, after anointing it. And when she was being laid to rest, there came a young man dressed in silken garments, … and he entered the place where the holy virgin’s body was being laid, and set there a small marble plaque on which it was written, “A holy mind, willing, honor to God, and the liberation of the fatherland.” And he stood there until the sepulcher was diligently closed, and then departing was seen no more in all the province of Sicily; whence there is no doubt that he was and Angel of God.
St Peter Heals St Agatha in Prison, by Giovanni Lanfranco, 1614 
The words on the plaque described above in Latin are “Mentem sanctam, spontaneam, honorem Deo, et patriae liberationem.” They are a grammatical fragment, consisting of three nouns in the accusative (objective) case, and their modifiers, without a verb or subject. “Spontaneam” can be read as if it modified “mentem”, but the Blessed Jacopo da Voragine in the Golden Legend explains the inscription thus. “It means ‘She had a holy mind, she offered herself willingly, she gave honor to God, and brought about the liberation of the fatherland.’ ”

These words were set to music, and commonly sung as the antiphon for the Magnificat at First Vespers of the feast of St Agatha. This antiphon was removed from the Roman Breviary in the Tridentine reform, which also no long mentions the plaque or the angel in the Matins lessons; it was retained, however, by the Dominicans and Cistercians. The motive may have been that the story itself was thought to be unlikely, and it is certainly true that the acts of St Agatha are not considered to be historically reliable; or it may have been simply because it is a grammatical fragment.

An antiphonary from the Franciscan convent of Fribourg, Switerland, 1488, with the antiphon “Mentem sanctam.” (source)
The inscription may also be seen on many church bells, which were often rung to warn people of some impending danger. The blessing of a bell traditionally included a prayer which asked that
when its melody shall sound in the ears of the peoples, may the devotion of their faith increase; may all the snares of the enemy, the crash of hail-storms and hurricanes, the violence of tempests be driven far away; may the deadly thunder be weakened, may the winds become salubrious, and be kept in check; may the right hand of Thy strength lay low the powers of the air, so that hearing this bell they may tremble and flee before the standard of the holy cross of Thy Son…(Pontificale Romanum)
The inscription of St Agatha on a bell in the Italian city of Laurino.
This may derive from the tradition that St Agatha repeatedly delivered the city of Catania where she was martyred from the dangers posed by the eruption of Mt Etna, a fact to which the Golden Legend also refers.
When a year had passed, around the day of (Agatha’s) birth into heaven, a very great mountain near the city burst and belched forth a fire, which coming down from the mountain like a flood, and turning both stones and earth to liquid, was coming toward the city with a great rush. Then the multitude of pagans went down from the mountain and felling to her sepulcher, took the veil with which it was covered, a set it against the fire; and immediately on the day of the virgin’s birth, the fire stood and proceeded no further.
This story appears in the Office of St Agatha in the antiphon of the Benedictus.
The multitude of pagans, fleeing to the to the virgin’s grave, and took her veil against the fire; that the Lord might prove that he delivered them from the dangers of the fire by the merits of the blessed Agatha, His Martyr.
Relics displayed in the Cathedral of Catania on the feast of St Agatha, including her veil, the red piece of cloth in the tallest reliquary in the middle. It is still frequently carried in processions in the city and environs.
A 13th-century reliquary of the Saint, crusted over with jewels that have been donated to her over the centuries. In her left hand she holds a plaque with the famous inscription on it.

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