By Donna Sue Berry
What is the origin of Italians’ deep traditional reverence for their women saints?
This question came to the attention of the English-speaking world after the ‘Grand Tours’ when many aristocratic travelers visited Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Faced with stupendous Christian art depicting Saints Agatha, Lucy, and Agnes, these Protestant elites could only conclude that the Roman female martyrs were in fact fictional folk characters ‘worshipped’ by the ‘ignorant, superstitious’ Catholic Italians. Some even went so far as to suggest that Italy’s ancient women saints were pagan goddesses in disguise.
Such a stunning combination of historical illiteracy and cultural chauvinism has had long-lasting effects. Outside southern Italy and Sicily, where these women are known by their iconography, most Catholics have not been instructed about this hidden legacy. Also, as the foreshortened Novus Ordo practiced worldwide today has eliminated the full Canon, few Catholics have even heard these women’s names immortalized at Mass.
In this unflinching essay, REGINA writer Donna Sue Berry tells the stories of these great Saints who suffered and died for the Faith so long ago, thereby helping lay the groundwork for the great Christian civilization of Italy. Even if their legacy has been neglected, we can safely assume one thing: the fortitude of these young women in the face of bestial torments undoubtedly influenced Italians’ traditional respect for Christian womanhood.
The Ladies of the Canon
Not long ago I was asked about the ‘ladies’ whose names are written in the Canon of the Mass, and quite honestly, I couldn’t answer the question. Why had they been so honored with such special mention during the most sacred part of the Liturgy? All I knew was that there were seven names mentioned, and that they were saints and martyrs. Oh, and that one had lost her eyes. In my Sunday Missal, though, I seem to always linger over the names of Agatha, Lucy, and Agnes.
Saint Peter Healing Agatha
by Caravaggio-follower Giovanni Lanfranco, c. 1614
Agatha, Tortured For the Faith
Saint Agatha is one of the most highly venerated virgin martyrs of Christian antiquity. About the year 231 in Catania, Sicily, Agatha was born to a rich and noble family; she was known for her remarkable beauty. Sometime during her youth, she consecrated her virginity to God, but at the age of 15 she enraged the Roman Senator Quintianus when she spurned his lustful advances. As punishment for her profession of the Christian faith, (and the fact that she had turned him down) he forced her into a brothel, essentially condemning her to a lifetime of constant rape.
However, the madam of the establishment found her unmanageable and sent her back to Quintianus. He unsuccessfully threatened her with torture if she didn’t acquiesce to his desires and eventually had her thrown into prison. She was subjected to the most inhumane tortures, especially the cruelty of having her breasts cut off. But the holy virgin was consoled by a vision of Saint Peter, who miraculously healed her. However, as the tortures continued over a long period of time, she eventually succumbed. Agatha died in prison under the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Decius in the year 251.
St. Agatha’s feast day is February 5th, and her office is in the Roman Breviary. In testimony of the type of tortures she endured, she is the patron saint of bell-founders because of the shape of her severed breasts, and of bakers whose loaves were blessed on her feast day. She has become the patron saint of breast cancer patients. Iconography often has her pictured as holding a plate with her severed breasts on it.
A year after her death, the calming of an eruption of Mt. Etna was attributed to her intercession, and devotees even today continue to ask her prayers for protection against fire and celebrate her feast with a daylong procession. Her relics are kept in a beautiful urn in the Cathedral of Catania and in various churches in Palermo. (Editor’s Note: For more on the historical reasons why Catholics revere relics, click HERE)
St. Agatha, Lorenzo Lippi (c. 1606-1665)
Saint Lucy by Francesco del Cossa (c.1430- c. 1477)
Lucy, the Saint of Syracuse
Saint Lucy, according to tradition, was born in Syracuse, Sicily in the year 283. Her father was of Roman origin, and her mother’s name, which was Eutychia, seems to indicate she was of Greek ancestry. Lucy was brought up as a Christian by her mother and must have been greatly influenced by the life of St. Agatha, who had died a martyr’s death some 32 years before Lucy’s birth.
Catania, the town of St. Agatha’s birth and where her relics rest, is only fifty miles from Syracuse. Many miracles were reported at Syracuse and in three decades it had become a place of pilgrimage that attracted many people who sought the intercession of St. Agatha. (Editor’s Note: Siracusa, Italy still celebrates the Feast of St Lucy, December 13, with a massive procession.)
Lucy, too, would follow St. Agatha’s example by consecrating her virginity to God. However, her mother, who suffered from a bleeding disorder, feared for her daughter’s future and had arranged a marriage for Lucy to a wealthy young pagan.
After a time, Eutychia was persuaded to make a pilgrimage to Catania in the hope of being cured of the hemorrhage. She was, in fact, cured there. Lucy took this opportunity to distribute a great part of their riches among the poor.
Lucy’s generosity incensed the young pagan man she was betrothed to as he considered her dowry to already be his. It was for this reason that he denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Sicily. This occurred sometime in the year 303, during the fearsome persecution of Diocletian. The courts condemned her to suffer the same fate that had befallen St. Agatha years before, and she was sentenced to a life of forced prostitution.
However, by the grace of God, Lucy’s captors found that they could not move her from the spot on which she stood; they literally could not drag her away to the brothel. An attempt was made to burn her alive, but the boiling oil and pitch had no power to hurt her or to cause her to falter in her faith in God.
Sensing that his demonstration of imperial power was becoming undone, the Governor ordered Lucy’s eyes to be gouged out. Still she stood resolute, refusing to deny Christ. At last, Lucy was put to death by the sword, gaining victory and entrance into eternal life.
As soon as Lucy died, miracles began to happen. While she was being carried to the cemetery where her body was to be prepared for burial in the family mausoleum, they discovered that her eyes had been miraculously restored.
Her feast day is December 13th and she is often depicted holding a dish on which is a set of eyes. St. Lucy’s name, which means ‘light’, was invoked by the devout during the Middle Ages as the patroness of those with eye afflictions. The poet Dante prayed to St. Lucy for the relief of an eye ailment, and in his Divine Comedy he gave this saint one of the most honored places in heaven, next to that of Saint John the Baptist.
Saint Lucy by Domenico Beccafumi 1521
Saint Agnes, Massimo Stanzione (1586-1656)
Agnes, Age 12
St. Agnes, one of the most cherished of saints because of her youth and holiness, was only 12 years old when she was martyred. She was highly regarded by the primitive Christian Church, and her name has remained a symbol of maidenly purity through the ages.
Since the close of the fourth century, the Fathers of the Church and Christian poets alike have sung her praises, extolling her virginity and her heroic endurance of the tortures she experienced. St. Ambrose, Pope Damasus, and Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, the Roman Christian poet, have given to the Church some of the accounts of her martyrdom.
Agnes came from a wealthy Roman family, and she was an extremely beautiful young girl. Like St. Agatha and St. Lucy, her faith in God and love for Christ led her to value her virginity. It was during this time that the Emperor Diocletian began his persecution, and after the promulgation of his imperial edict against Christians, Agnes voluntarily declared herself a Christian.
She, too, was sentenced to a house of prostitution but was miraculously saved from harm to her innocence. The Prefect Sempronius condemned her to be dragged naked through the streets to the brothel. Various versions of tradition say that she prayed while she was disrobing before being displayed in the streets. Immediately then, her hair grew long and thick, covering her chaste body. One young man, who looked at her with lustful intent, was instantly struck blind.
During her torment, the son of a Roman official approached Agnes in order to rape her; he fell, instantly dead to the floor. However, the holy virgin began praying for him to be restored to life, and the young man rose. He proclaimed to all witnesses that there was only “One God! And that is the Christian God!” The crowd went wild, and we are told that 160 men there stepped forward to confess their belief, were baptized and consequently suffered martyrdom.
After this, Agnes was taken out to be burned but when the wood would not catch fire, a Roman soldier beheaded her. The body of the virgin martyr was taken and placed in a sepulcher on the Via Nomentana where later a larger catacomb grew up around it, bearing her name.
Later, during the reign of Constantine, a basilica, Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, was erected over her grave. Today a slab of marble that dates back to the fourth century can be seen there with a beautiful relief depicting St. Agnes. Some of her relics still remain, and her skull is preserved in a separate chapel at the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone.
Saint Agnes is the patron saint of young girls and is represented with a lamb, the symbol of her virginal innocence. In Rome, it is on her feast day of January 21st that two lambs are solemnly blessed after mass. From the wool of these lambs, the palliums are made which are sent from the Pope to new archbishops.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –
“Skull Saint Agnes” by Michaelphillipr
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Agnes, Domenichino (1581-1641)
Saint Agnes, Francesco Guarino (1650)