It seems whenever I decide to write about a certain saint, Crystal scoops me. Check out her page for some information on the legend as well as for an interesting interpretation of St Agatha by the contemporary Canadian artist Jennifer Linton. I would just like to jot down some reflections on the legend and representation of today's saint.
St Agatha is one of a number of early Christian virgin martyrs who was killed after refusing marriage or sexual advances from pagan Roman officials. In her story, she is forced into a brothel and when she refuses to accept customers, she is tortured and her breasts are cut off. The sadistic eroticism is explicit in this tale and is part and parcel of the efforts of the Roman official, Quinctianus, to demand sex of her and then force her to work in a brothel. The amputation of her breasts are the finishing touch of male assault on her body, a long, drawn-out act of rape. St Agatha, however, is not vanquished, and reclaims her own body, reminding Quinctianus that a woman's breasts are more than objectified erotic objects: "Cruel man, have you forgotten your mother and the breast that nourished you, that you dare to mutilate me this way?" Or, in the fifteenth-century English of the William Caxton, the first translator of the medieval Golden Legend:
Over felon and cruel tyrant, hast thou no shame to cut off that in a woman which thou didst suck in thy mother, and whereof thou wert nourished? But I have my paps whole in my soul, of which I nourish all my wits, the which I have ordained to serve our Lord Jesu Christ, sith the beginning of my youth.This story seems very profound to me, and St Agatha's ability to reinterpret Quincianus' narrative by a more thorough knowledge of her own body as well as her understanding that faith preserved her physical integrity (she does not claim that her body is harmed but that her soul is whole, rather she claims "I have my paps whole in my soul") shows her to be very powerful.
St Agatha is often represented in devotional art with her breasts on a plate, and we moderns may either giggle like schoolchildren or turn away horrified. Are these images truly that morbid, or are we disturbed because we are uncomfortable with our own physicality? Martyrs usually bear the symbols of their martyrdom as trophies -- St Catherine of Alexandra carries the wheel with which she was tortured or the sword with which she was murdered; St Lucy holds a plate holding two eyes, since her eyes were gouged out by her tormentors. Sometimes St Agatha is just represented with the pair of shears or tongs that were used to remove her breasts. They are symbols, and the saints are represented as healed and whole -- "whole in their soul," as Agatha might say.
Renaissance and especially Baroque art change this equation and play with the human drama involved in the story. In the "Martyrdom of St Agatha" by Sebastian del Piombo (c. 1485 - 1587), we are presented with the very brutal scene in which the tongs are applied to Agatha's breasts. She is nude to the waist, and the erotic element seems very clear. Is Agatha allowed to redeem herself in this painting?
In Tiepolo's eighteenth-century version, there is another twist on the iconography. In his painting, there is a dish with two breasts on it, but it is not merely symbolic, for we see Agatha press a bloody cloth to her chest and we realize the intense physicality implied in the traditional representation of the saint.
In another representation, we see a portrait of an aristocratic lady, possibly by Sebastian del Piombo, in which the dish with breasts, the shears, a halo, and a martyr's palm had been added at a later date. In a weird way, a realistic portrait has been given the timeless symbols of a martyr's icon.