Monday, February 05, 2007

the martyrdom of Saint Agatha

A traditional representation of St Agatha, with a martyr's palm and a dish containing her breasts.

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.


crystal said...

Great post, Liam.

When I was googling for pictures of Agatha, I saw the Sebastian del Piombo one and thought the same thing ... it seemed almost creepy, not because of the torture but the way it's presented.

I'm kind of mixed up about these stories where the virgin saint is confronted with "a fate worse than death" situation ... what this has to do with their identity as christians. Thanks for bringing up this issue.

Liam said...

I think what's interesting is that there are many layers to these stories. On one hand, most probably have their basis in fact, and it can be seen as early Christian women who, through faith, find a way to assert control over their bodies. At the same time, the stories come down to us mostly through a male, clerical tradition in which sexuality is seen as suspect and celibacy is exalted (almost to the point of dualism). Then you have the layer of later artists, especially from the later middle ages on, who assert their own take on the iconography. So you get all these often conflicting layers creating a complex discourse about powerful female physicality.

Jeff said...


You make a great point about how celibacy is looked at now, in the male clerical tradition, and how differently it may have been looked at by women converts in the Roman Empire in the days of the early Church. This review of Elaine Pagels' Adam, Eve, and the Serpent echoes what you are pointing out:

While Pagels argues that the phenomenon of pre-Augustinian Christian celibacy was an expression of this early Christian impulse toward freedom (rather than of a hatred of nature or the body) , she thinks Augustine’s defense of celibacy is the very antithesis of freedom. Pagels points out how promiscuity and immorality in the late Roman Empire resulted in widespread infanticide and abortion, as well as a slave trade in child prostitutes who were treated, in Justin’s phrase, "like herds of oxen, goats, or sheep." Sexual exploitation of the unborn, the new born and youth of both sexes, together with the fact that even free men and women were expected to marry (usually arranged) and bear and rear children as a duty to empire and family, meant for many Christians that the only route to personal liberty led through the "freedom" of celibacy. "Christian renunciation, of which celibacy is the paradigm, offered freedom -- freedom, in particular, from entanglement in Roman society."

Liam said...

Jeff, I think Pagels simplifies Augustine's position (as she tends to simplify everything), but she is right about what the "freedom of celibacy" meant to early Christians.

Garpu the Fork said...

I remember reading a discussion about how the myth of virgin martyrs are a ploy to keep women in control (think it may have been a parenthetical comment in McClary's Feminine Endings). I can't help but see them as empowered. Here's a woman who was sexually assaulted, abused, and she has the strength to keep her convictions and tell off her abuser. I think their messages about purity--to which all are called regardless of gender--are important as well, since they transcend the superficial.

Liam said...

I think you're right Garpu. Obviously, legends of virgin martyrs, just as the story of the Virgin Mary, can be and have been constructed in a way to deprive women of power; but I think the core of it all is quite the opposite.

Jeff said...


I agree with you regarding Elaine Pagels. She's a lover of all things Gnostic, but I thought that book was actually pretty good. Besides, you know me and old Augustine. I'll give him a little dig whenever I get the chance.

cowboyangel said...

Interesting post and discussion. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how far we as a species have advanced since the days of Agatha. Women are still dealing with the confines of various religious institutions, struggling to maintain control over their bodies, dealing with male hierarchies and power structures, being tortured (a more and more frequent strategy in some of the low-grade and not-so low-grade wars around the world), etc., etc.

We don't have to look far for virgin martyrs. I think of 14-year old Abeer Qassim al-Janabi in Iraq: gang-raped, murdered and set on fire by U.S. soldiers. A premeditated act. Gender differences, the male violence at the root of sexual assault, religious differences, power (colonialism), and male hierachies. I wonder if Iraqi Muslims will remember her as we remember Agatha.