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FEAST - A Saint for the Day (Feb. 5): St. Agatha


John Dillon <[log in to unmask]>


medieval-religion - Scholarly discussions of medieval religious culture <[log in to unmask]>


Fri, 5 Feb 2016 23:40:14 +0000





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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

The virgin martyr Agatha, co-patron of this honourable list, is said legendarily to have perished at the age of fifteen in the Decian persecution (250-251).  She has a rich hagiographic dossier that appears to begin early in the sixth century.  (_Pace_ Paul Burns in the February volume [1998] of _Butler's Lives of the Saints.  New Full Edition_, the hymn in Agatha's honor once ascribed to the fourth-century pope St. Damasus I is pretty clearly a later production.  In 1895 Ihm put it in the _Pseudodamasiana_  and in 1922 A. S. Walpole could say "No one now attributes it to [Damasus].")  Agatha's cult is attested in Rome from the later fifth century onward.  Her greatly rebuilt basilica in Ravenna (Sant'Agata Maggiore) dates from the end of that century.

Agatha is particularly associated with the Sicilian city of Catania, both as the site of her imprisonment, torture, and death and as the place she has protected from repeated eruptions of nearby Mt. Etna.  During his evanescent early eleventh-century reconquest of eastern Sicily the East Roman general George Maniakes had what were said to be her remains removed from there to Constantinople.  In 1126, with Sicily again under Christian rule, a pair of Latins -- a Frenchman named Gislebertus and a Calabrian named Goselinus -- brought these, or what they had been assured were these, back to Catania (less a breast that got left at Gallipoli in Apulia), thereby engendering two minor monuments of medieval Sicily's Latin literature: abbot-bishop Maurice's engaging account of this event and the Lauds hymn for the feast of Agatha's translation from Constantinople beginning _Exultet urbs cathanie_.

Supplementing the images in glass posted earlier today by Gordon Plumb, herewith some further period-pertinent images of St. Agatha:

a) as depicted in the earlier to mid-sixth-century mosaics of the triumphal arch (carefully restored, 1880-1900) in the Basilica Eufrasiana in Poreč:


b) as depicted (at left; at right, St. Pelagia) in the mid- or slightly later sixth-century procession of virgin martyrs (ca. 561; heavily restored in the nineteenth century) in Ravenna's basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (photograph courtesy of Genevra Kornbluth):


c) as depicted in the late eighth-century sacramentary of Gellone (Paris, BnF, ms. Latin 12048, fol. 17v):


d) as depicted in the earlier eleventh-century mosaics (restored between 1953 and 1962) in the narthex of the church of the Theotokos in the monastery of Hosios Loukas near Distomo near Phokis:


e) as depicted (torture; death in prison) in the later tenth- or very early eleventh-century so-called Menologion of Basil II (Città del Vaticano, BAV, cod. Vat. gr. 1613, p. 373):


f) as depicted (torture; death in prison) in the mid-eleventh-century "imperial" menologion in the State Historical Museum in Moscow (cod. Syn. gr. 183, p. 14):


g) as depicted (with an identifying legend in Greek) on a twelfth-century seal of the church of Catania:


h) as depicted (at left; at right, St. Anthony of Egypt) in the late twelfth-century mosaics of the north choir (ca. 1182) in the basilica cattedrale di Santa Maria Nuova in Monreale:


A closer but darker view (Agatha):


i) as depicted (at upper right, being placed in prison) in one of four panels of a full-page illumination in the late twelfth-century so-called Bible of Saint Bertin (ca. 1190-1200; Den Haag, KB, ms. 76 F 5, fol. 40r, sc. 1B):


j) as depicted (brandishing a sword above her persecutor) in an earlier thirteenth-century antiphoner possibly of German origin (Den Haag, KB, ms. 135 L 20, fol. 194r):


k) as depicted (torture) in an earlier thirteenth-century collection of saint's lives in their French-language translation by Wauchier de Denain (betw. 1226 and 1250; London, BL, MS Royal 20 D VI, fol. 64v):


l) as depicted (torture) in a panel of a mid-thirteenth-century ambulatory window (Bay 109, panel C2; before 1256) in the cathédrale Saint-Julien, Le Mans:


m) as depicted (torture) in a mid-thirteenth-century gradual for the Use of the abbey of Notre-Dame at Fontevrault (ca. 1250-1260; Limoges, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 2, fol. 64v):


n) as depicted (torture) in a later thirteenth-century psalter for the Use of Reims (Carpentras, Bibliothèque municipale Inguimbertine, ms. 77 (\1), fol. 178v):


o) as depicted (torture) in a late thirteenth-century copy of French origin of the _Legenda aurea_ (San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, ms. HM 3027, fol. 33r):


p) as depicted (torture) in the late thirteenth-century Livre d'images de Madame Marie (ca. 1285-1290; Paris, BnF, ms. Nouvelle acquisition française 16251, fol. 97v):


q) as depicted by the Master of St. Agatha on the late thirteenth-century side (ca. 1290) of a processional standard in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence:


r) as depicted in a late thirteenth-century glass window (ca. 1295) in the Walburgiskirche in St. Michael in Obersteiermark (Land Steiermark):


s) as depicted in a partly preserved later thirteenth- or fourteenth-century fresco portrait in the rupestrian church of Santa Lucia alle Malve (also dedicated to Agatha) in Matera (MT) in Basilicata:



t) as depicted (at far right) in an earlier fourteenth-century mosaic (betw. 1304 and 1333) in the left apse of Messina's basilica cattedrale protometropolitana della Santissima Assunta:


Detail view (Agatha at lower left):


u) as depicted by Jacopo del Casentino on the earlier fourteenth-century side (ca. 1310-1350) of a processional standard in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence:


v) as depicted in the earlier fourteenth-century frescoes (betw. 1313 and 1318; conservation work in 1968) by Michael Astrapas and Eutychios in the church of St. George at Staro Nagoričane in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia:


w) as depicted (torture) in an earlier fourteenth-century North Italian copy of the sermons of Maurice of Sully (ca. 1320-1330; Paris, BnF, ms. Français 187, fol. 38v):


x) as depicted (torture) in an earlier fourteenth-century copy of the _Legenda aurea_ in its French-language version by Jean de Vignay (ca. 1326-1350; Paris, BnF, ms. Français 185, fol. 222r):


y) as depicted (torture; in prison) in an earlier fourteenth-century copy  of books 9-16 of Vincent of Beauvais' _Speculum historiale_ in its French-language vision by Jean de Vignay (ca. 1335; Paris, BnF, ms. Arsenal 5080, fol. 174r):


z) as depicted (at right, at her tomb; at left, St. Lucy of Syracuse) in a mid-fourteenth-century copy, from the workshop of Richard and Jeanne de Montbaston, of the _Legenda aurea_ in its French-language version by Jean de Vignay (1348; Paris, BnF, ms. Français 241, fol. 13v):


aa) as portrayed in her later fourteenth-century reliquary bust by the Sienese goldsmith Giovanni di Bartolo (commissioned, 1373; completed, 1376) in Catania's basilica cattedrale di Sant'Agata:




The metal plaque carried by Agatha in her left hand represents the inscribed marble one that in her Passio (both in Latin and in translation into Greek) was brought by an angel at her funeral and laid in her tomb by her head. The plaque's traditional Latin text reads MENTEM SANCTAM SPONTANEAM HONOREM DEO ET PATRIAE LIBERATIONEM ("A holy mind, a voluntary honor to God, and her home town's liberation"). Still according to the Passio, about a year later the citizens of Catania experienced the liberation part of this characterization of the saint when through the power of her veil taken from her tomb the city was protected from a lava flow emanating from nearby Mt. Etna. Whereupon they converted _en masse_ to Christianity. The crown dates to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century; the base is early modern and most of the jewelry with which the bust is bedecked is also post-medieval.  An English-language description of this object:


bb) as depicted (torture) in a late fourteenth- or early fifteenth-century copy of the _Legenda aurea_ in its French-language version by Jean de Vignay (Rennes, Bibliothèque de Rennes Métropole, ms. 266, fol. 71r):


cc) as depicted (torture) in an early fifteenth-century physician's almanac (1411-1412; London, BL, Harley MS 2332, fol. 2v):


dd) as depicted in the earlier fifteenth-century Hours of Catherine of Cleves (ca. 1440; New York, The Morgan Library and Museum, Morgan MS M.917, p. 306):


ee) as depicted by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna on their mid-fifteenth-century Santa Sabina altarpiece (1443) in the Cappella di San Tarasio in Venice's chiesa di San Zaccaria:


ff) as depicted in grisaille (torture) by Jean le Tavernier in the mid-fifteenth-century Hours of Philip of Burgundy (ca. 1451-1460; Den Haag, KB, ms. 76 F 2, fol. 278r):


gg) as depicted (at right; torture) in a later fifteenth-century fresco (1464) in the chiesa abbaziale dei Santi Nazario e Celso at San Nazzaro Sesia (NO) in Piedmont:


hh) as depicted by Piero della Francesca in a panel of his later fifteenth-century polyptych of Sant'Antonio (1467/68) in the Galleria nazionale dell'Umbria in Perugia:



ii) as depicted (second from right) by Giovanni di Paolo in a later fifteenth-century panel painting of female martyrs (ca. 1470) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:


jj) as depicted (torture) in a late fifteenth-century fresco by Giovan Pietro da Cemmo and assistants in the chiesa di Santa Maria at Esine (BS) in Lombardy:


kk) as depicted (holding the pincers of her martyrdom) in a late fifteenth-century Carthusian missal (1492; Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, ms. 425, fol. 241r):


ll) as portrayed in a sixteenth-century statue from her originally fourteenth-century church (demolished in the 1930s) in Piazza Armerina (EN) in Sicily and now in that town's Pinacoteca comunale:


Here the inscription on Agatha's plaque is rendered, also traditionally, by the initial letters of each word (except for _et_, reproduced in full): MSS / HD / ET PL.


John Dillon


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