On the Kalendar: Saint Agatha of Sicily, Martyr

January from Les Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne

“January”, kalendar page from Les Petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Little Hours of Queen Anne of Bretagne), by the Maître des Triomphes de Pétrarque. From Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (France).

According to the Golden Legend, Agatha came from a noble family in either Catania or Palermo, and like so many other young women martyrs, she had made a vow of virginity. She rejected the advances of the low-born Roman prefect Quintianus, so knowing she was a Christian, he took advantage of the ongoing persecutions under the Emperor Decius, he had her arrested. The judge she was brought for was—Quintianus himself.

Agatha continued to refuse Quintianus’s advances, to he eventually had her put in prison to be tortured. She was stretched on a rack to be torn with iron hooks, burned with torches, and whipped. Her breasts were cut off with pincers. She was sentenced to be burned at the stake, but she was saved by an earthquake. She was returned to prison, where Saint Peter appeared to her and healed her wounds. Agatha eventually died in prison.

According to Maltese tradition, Agatha and some of her friends fled Sicily and spent some time in Malta, before returning to Sicily to face persecution and martyrdom. The crypt where she lived (hewn from rock in Rabat) is now an underground basilica. Agatha is a patron saint of Malta, and her apparition in 1551 to a Benedictine nun is said to have saved Malta from Turkish invasion.

Agatha’s cult spread to England, and her feast day, February 5, was retained in the Anglican kalendar.

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