Martyr and patroness of Catania, Sicily; d. possibly in the Decian persecution, 249 to 251. The martyrology of Carthage and that of St. Jerome mention her death on February 5. Legend alleges that she was sent to a brothel to induce her to repudiate her faith. After the removal of her breasts, the Apostle Peter is supposed to have appeared and cured her; but the next day she died in prison of new cruelties. From the sixth century, claims were made for Palermo as the place of her birth; but the older versions of the legend testify for Catania. Her passio is recorded in many Greek and Latin versions, but the Greek seems to be the oldest.
The cult of St. Agatha quickly spread beyond Sicily, and her name was inscribed in the Canon of the Roman Mass. It is probable that her remains were translated to Constantinople. Pope Symmachus had a church erected in her honor on the Via Aurelia; and Gregory I (d. 604) reconsecrated an Arian church as S. Agata dei Goti in her name. Her intervention was credited with stilling an eruption of Mt. Etna the year after her burial; and in the Middle Ages, particularly in south Germany, bread, candles, fruits, and letters were blessed in her name to ward off destruction by fire. The popular merrymaking that accompanied her cult in Sicily was probably related to ancient pagan festivals, but the claim that her cult prolonged that of Isis is untenable. She is considered the patron of foundrymen, miners, Alpine guides, and nurses. Since the fourteenth century she has been depicted with her severed breasts on a plate, with a candle, or with a house in flames.
Feast: Feb. 5.
Bibliography: s. d'arrigo, Il martirio di sant'Agata nel quadro storico del suo tempo, 2 v. (Catania 1988). v. j. camilleri, Saint Agatha: an archaeological study of the ancient monuments at St Agatha's building complex, crypt, catacombs, church, and museum (Rabat, Malta 1984). b. kÖtting, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 1:183–184. h. dÖrrie, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1970) 1:179–184.