Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Saints of the Roman Canon: St Agatha of Sicily, February 5th

Yesterday was the feast of another Saint of the Roman Canon about whom we know very little, beyond the fact of her existence and her martyrdom. Nevertheless, St Agatha is one of the most highly venerated virgin martyrs.

According to tradition, she suffered cruel torture in the persecution of Decius in 251 AD; her breasts were pierced with pincers, but she was healed by St Peter who appeared to her while she was kept in prison. She was then subjected to torture with hot coals and shards of glass until this was interrupted by an eruption of Mt Etna; finally, she was sent back to prison, where she died of starvation.

Her traditional iconography reminds us of this gruesome death and the grace with which she faced it. She is shown as a young woman, who carries her severed breasts on a plate, or has pincers in her hand. She sometimes displays a candle or flame, a symbol of her power against fire; a unicorn’s horn, a symbol of her virginity; or a palm branch or cross, symbols of martyrdom. Many of the images from the Renaissance and Baroque periods graphically focus on some of these details in ways that might not appeal to modern sensibilities (or mine at any rate!).

Franisco d’Osona, ca. 1505
Piero della Francesca, ca 1460-70. This is in my opinion a very poor woork, but it heartens me to know that even an artist as great as he was can have an off day!
Francisco de Zurbarán, 1630-33
This early Baroque painting, from 1614 by Giovanni Lanfranco is more tasteful, I feel, showing St Peter healing her injuries.
In the Eastern Church, she is known as St Agatha of Palermo and icons of her tend to show the generic symbols of martyrdom, the palm branch or cross.

This is one of a series of articles written to highlight the great feasts and the saints of the Roman Canon. All are connected to a single opening essay, in which I set out principles by which we might create a canon of art for Roman Rite churches, and a schema that would guide the placement of such images in a church. (Read it here.) In these, I plan to cover the key elements of images of the Saints of the Roman Canon - Eucharistic Prayer I - and the major feasts of the year. I have created the tag Canon of Art for Roman Rite to group these together, should any be interested in seeing these articles as they accumulate. For the fullest presentation of the principles of sacred art for the liturgy, take the Master’s of Sacred Arts, www.Pontifex.University.

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