February 5, 2015

The Life and Veneration of the Holy Virgin Martyr Agatha

St. Agatha the Martyr (Feast Day - February 5th)

The Life of the Holy Virgin Martyr Agatha

By Hieromonk Makarios of Simonopetra

Saint Agatha, one of the most renowned Martyrs of the West, was born into a noble family at Catania in Sicily.* From early youth, she consecrated herself to the Lord and worked at heightening her rare beauty with the most precious adornment of the true Faith and the holy virtues. At the time of her arrest, during the persecution under Decius (251), she was no more than fifteen.

The Prefect Quintinian was greatly taken by her beauty when she appeared at his tribunal, and as he was interested in getting possession of her riches, he offered to marry her. On being refused, he sent her to live for a month with Aphrodisia, a woman of corrupt life, who used all her wiles to persuade Agatha to accept him. But the young girl was unmoved by the glamor of worldly pleasures, and Aphrodisia admitted herself defeated, saying that it would be easier to change the nature of iron or stone than Agatha's resolve, firmly based as it was on the unshakeable rock of the Faith.

When she was again brought to the tribunal, Quintinian said, "Since you are of noble birth, why are you behaving like a slave?" "Because I am a slave of Christ," she replied, "and slaves of Christ are really the most free of all creation because they acquired self-mastery by His grace." Since she persisted in mocking the gods which he urged her to worship, the Prefect slapped her face and put her in prison while he decided what torments to inflict on her.

The next day, she was ordered to sacrifice if she wanted to save her life, but she replied that we are saved only by Christ the Son of the living God. She was stretched on a frame and beaten, then lacerated with iron claws and her wounds were seared with flaming torches. "These tortures are a great joy to me," she exclaimed to the fury of the Prefect. "Corn does not reach the granary until threshed and winnowed, and my soul cannot attain everlasting blessedness until separated by sufferings from my body." Quintinian ordered the torturers to cut off her breasts and to throw her, bleeding, into the dungeon. But at the dead of night her Guardian Angel brought the Apostle Peter in the midst of a brilliant light, and he healed all her wounds.

Quintinian had Agatha brought before his tribunal for a fourth time. He was unimpressed by her miraculous recovery, and he ordered her to be stripped of her clothing and rolled on a bed of potsherds and burning coals. Suddenly the entire city was shaken by an earthquake, and part of palace collapsed. The terrified populace stormed into the praetorium and threatened to burn Quintinian in the remains of his palace unless he released the holy Martyr, thus he was avenged by God. Her tormentors were backed backed off and the Saint was returned to prison. She begged the Lord, who had granted her the grace of steadfastness under torture, to grant her now to see the glory of His Face, and so she gave up her soul to God.

When the people heard the news, they hurried to the prison with myrrh and sweet spices for her burial. Just as they were placing Saint Agatha's body in a porphyry sarcophagus, her Guardian Angel appeared in the city as a shining youth attended by a hundred white-clad children. He placed an inscribed marble tablet on the tomb, which read: "Holy devoted soul. Honor of God. Protection of the Land." The Angel then disappeared.

As for the wicked Quintinian, he never got his hands on Saint Agatha's property, for he was thrown from his chariot into a river when his horses bolted, and was drowned.

On the first anniversary of Agatha's death, Mount Etna erupted and Catania was on the brink of being engulfed by a stream of lava. Christians and pagans alike rushed to the Saint's tomb, lifted the veil from the sarcophagus and bore it like a shield to confront the river of fire, which stopped immediately. The same miracle has been repeated many times in the course of the centuries, and hence Saint Agatha is fervently venerated by the people of Catania as the patroness of their city, and she is honored as much in the East as in the West.

* According to others, she was from Palermo.

From The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, vol. 3, pp. 409-411.

The Veneration of the Holy Virgin Martyr Agatha

Her Sacred Relics

It should be mentioned from the outset that the stone sarcophagus in which Saint Agatha was entombed has survived till our days and is in the same crypt above which was erected the Church of Santa Agata la Vetere.

The sacred relic of the Saint is incorrupt and fragrant, and remained intact in her crypt until 1040. In 593 a small portion was transferred to Rome at the request of the Pope of Rome, Saint Gregory the Great, and it was placed in the Church of Santa Agata dei Gotti. From this portion, in 597 Saint Gregory donated a piece to the Monastery of Saint Stephen in Capri. Another portion was sent to Constantinople at the end of the 10th century during the reign of Emperor Basil II and his brother Constantine VIII.

In 1040 Saracens campaigned against Sicily, and the Byzantines were quick to help in this struggle. General George Maniakes excelled in these battles, but he came into conflict with the leader of the fleet Stephen, who was a relative of Emperor John II Komnenos. The conflict arose after Stephen committed the grave error of allowing the escape of the Arab military commander, Abd Allah, the most important prisoner of war. This conflict caused Maniakes to lose royal favor and so he went to Constantinople to apologize. He thought that in order to regain the favor of the emperor he would have to transfer to Constantinople two treasures of the region, namely the imperishable relics of the Holy Great Martyrs Agatha of Catania and Lucy of Syracuse.

Eighty six years were to pass before the relics of Saint Agatha returned home. They say that it was the Saint herself who wished it, specifically asking this of two soldiers who had a devotion to her, called Gisliberto from Provence and Goselmo from Apulia. The Saint appeared to them several times in their dreams until one night the two of them decided to remove the sacred remains from the church in Constantinople where they were venerated. In order better to avoid detection they cut the body into five parts and then in order to hide it they put them into the quivers in which they usually transported arrows. It is said that they then covered them with rose petals. The two soldiers boarded a ship and set sail for Sicily, but first they stopped in Apulia, the area of Goselmo’s birth, and at his request they left there one precious relic, a breast which is venerated to this day in the church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria of Egypt in Galatina, near Lecce. When they arrived in Messina, the two soldiers alerted Maurizio the bishop of Catania that the relics of Saint Agatha were finally near to the city. The bishop, at that time at his Summer residence in Acicastello, was overjoyed but, before spreading the news about the city, wished to be circumspect and ascertain that the two men really were telling the truth and that what they had brought with them really were the remains of the Saint. He sent to Messina two of his most trusted monks, Oldmanno and Luca, in order to verify the remains: the relics were compared with the reports drawn up at the last time that the relics had been recognised. Only after receiving confirmation from the monks did Bishop Maurizio give the news to the people of Catania. It was the 17th August 1126. The population had been awoken during the night by the ringing of the church bells as if for a festival and they did not waste time by changing their clothes. They poured into the streets dressed as they were, even barefoot and in their nightshirts, to be among the first to welcome the relics which had at long last been restored to them. The historical reunion of the people of Catania with the remains of Saint Agatha took place in the district of Ognina, where subsequently was erected a church, which in 1381 was surrounded by lava but itself emerged unscathed. More recently it was abandoned and allowed to collapse. In further corroboration of the exceptional nature of the events of 1126 the historical documents record a miracle which took place that same night. A woman who had been blind and paralyzed from birth acquired her sight and the use of her legs while prostrate before the sacred treasure. The people of Catania were so grateful to the two soldiers that they elected them honorary citizens of the city and made them permanent custodians of the Saint’s relics: their own remains now repose in the Cathedral, set into a wall of the Lady Chapel, alongside those of Saint Agatha, even if the exact location of them is not now clear.

Since 1376 the head and chest of Saint Agatha have been kept in a precious reliquary made of silver finely worked and embellished with engravings and enamels. It has the appearance of a bust size statue with the face coloured as in life by enamel and with blonde hair made of gold; in reality however it is a sophisticated coffer, hollow within, in which are preserved the relics of the head, ribs and some internal organs. The bishop of Catania of the day, a Benedictine monk who originated in Limoges, had commissioned it in France in 1373 from Giovanni Di Bartolo, the goldsmith from Siena. Through the devotion of the faithful the very fine net which covers the Bust has been continuously enriched by jewels, gold objects and precious stones.

The remains of the Saint had for centuries been kept in a wooden chest, to be found today in the Church of Sant’Agata la Vetere. Since 1576 they have lain in a rectangular sliver casket 85 cm high, 1m 48 cm long and 56 cm wide. The surface is divided into fourteen scenes which depict other saints venerating Agatha, the first virgin martyr of the Church. Inside are also preserved two historical documents : the papal Bull of Urban II which solemnly confirmed the birth of Saint Agatha in Catania rather than in Palermo, as one version would have it, and a parchment dating from 1666 which proclaims Saint Agatha permanent protector of Messina.

Among all the Italian cities of which Saint Agatha is also Patron, Gallipoli and Galatina in Apulia are locked in a singular contest caused by the breast which is a relic of Saint Agatha. A legend which spread throughout Apulia would explain by means of a miracle the presence of the breast in Gallipoli. It is said that on the 18th August 1126 Saint Agatha appeared in a dream to a woman and warned her that her baby was clenching something between its lips. The woman woke up and confirmed what she had dreamt but was unable to persuade the baby to part its lips. She tried for a period of time : then, giving way to despair, she turned to the local bishop. The prelate recited the litany calling on the aid of all the saints and only when he spoke the name of Agatha did the baby open its mouth. From its mouth emerged the breast, evidently that of Saint Agatha. The relic remained in Gallipoli in the basilica dedicated to the Saint from 1126 to 1389 when the Prince Del Balzo Orsini had it moved to Galatina where he had built the church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria of Egypt, in which the relic remains to this day, attached to a convent of Capuchin friars.

Other relics such as an elbow and the bone of an arm are to be found in Palermo in the Royal Chapel. In the Monastery of San Salvatore in Messina is another bone from an arm. In Ali in the province of Messina is part of a bone from an arm. In Rome various churches preserve fragments of the veil. In Sant’Agata de Goti in the province of Benevento is preserved a finger. Other small relics are to be found in Sant’Agata di Bianco, Capua, Capri, Siponto, Foggia, Florence, Pistoia, Radicofani, Udine, Venalzio, Ferra. There are also to be found small relics of Saint Agatha outside of Italy : in Spain in Palencia, Oviedo and Barcelona; in France in Cambrai, Hana, Breau Preau and Douai; in Belgium in Brussels, Thienen and Laar; in Antwerp; but also in Luxembourg, the Czech Republic (Prague) Germany (Cologne) and not least at Buckfast Abbey in the West of England.

Relics of the Saint can be found in the following places in Greece:

- Monasteries of Saint Paul (portion of her sacred skull), Dionysiou and Xenophontos in Mount Athos.

- Monastery of Kechrovouni in Tinos.

- Monastery of the Transfiguration of Christ Loukous in Astros Kynouria.

- Monastery of Panagia Prousou in Euratania.

- Monastery of Saint Katherine of Aegina in the triune new Church of Saints Katherine, Agatha and John the Forerunner.

- Monastery of Panagia Koroniotissa-Dakryrroousis in Lixouri of Kefalonia in the Chapel of Saint Paraskevi, where there has survived an old miraculous icon of Saint Agatha.

The Honor of the Saint in the Orthodox Church

Saint Agatha is not only extensively honored in the West, but in the East as well. Both East and West celebrate her on February 5th. Many cities and villages have her as a patron in Europe, and she is extensively honored as the patron of various professions and against various diseases and calamities, especially diseases and ailments associated with the breast.

Her extensive biography was written in the late 5th century by an anonymous author, which became the basis upon which Saint Symeon the Translator wrote her life in the 9th century. That same century Saint Methodios the Confessor, Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote an encomium in praise of Saint Agatha the Martyr.

In the tenth century she appeared in Synaxaria of Constantinople, including the Menologion of Emperor Basil II.

She is particularly celebrated in Greece in the Monasteries mentioned above that possess portions of her relics.

In addition, in the village of Zygos in Spartilla of Kerkyra there is a church dedicated to the Saint.

On a beach of the village of Haraki, known as Agia Agathi Beach, there is a cave church dedicated to the Saint that dates to around the 14th century, and this church served as a church for the ascetics of the region at the time. The Saint would often appear to fishermen of the village, and relics of monks have been found near the cave church, while often angelic melodies can be heard from the sacred site.

In Karditsa there is a village called Agia Agathi.

In Stamna of Aitolia the Saint is particularly honored in a chapel on August 23rd.

Also, in Platanotopos Eleftheroupolis there is a beautiful chapel to the Saint.

A Service of Praise and a Supplication Service to Saint Agatha was finally composed by Elder Gerasimos Mikragiannanitis.

The Saint is depicted in icons in many old Orthodox churches, both within Mount Athos and outside of it, and in many modern churches her martyrdom is depicted. For example, the cutting off of her breast is depicted in the Monastery of Saint Nicholas Philanthropinon in Ioannina and dates to the 16th century, while the piercing of the Saint is depicted in the Asomaton Monastery in Petraki and dates to 1719. A fresco in the Chapel of Saint Demetrios in Vatopaidi Monastery on Mount Athos depicts the Saint in prison and is dated to 1721.