With crowds of up to 1,000,000 strong, there are few mass expressions of devotion as popular as the Festa di Sant'Agata in Catania. The whole city turns out en masse, tens of thousands come from afar to express their gratitude or to pray for intercession and many others just come for the incredible atmosphere, the fireworks and the food!
So important is Sant'Agata in the spiritual lives of the Catanesi that they celebrate her life twice a year: the first, most important festa takes place from 3rd - 5th February and remembers her martyrdom, while the second, held on 17th August, records the return of her mortal remains to the city from Constantinople in 1126, after an absence of 86 years.
Born into a Patrician family in Catania, the devoutly religious Sant'Agata soon attracted the amorous attentions of the Roman Proconsul Quintianus, who wished to take her as his wife. She refused, staunchly defending her honour and her faith and Quintianus's courtship quickly turned to religious persecution and psychopathic hatred. After enduring the horrific torture of being rolled on hot coals and having her breasts amputated, Sant'Agata died on 5th February 251.
News of her martyrdom quickly spread and within a year she was already the subject of a devotional cult. She also became an icon of Sicily's struggle against its Roman oppressors, a theme that is echoed in her motto:
"Mentem Sanctam Spontaneam, Honorem Deo et Patriae Liberationem."
A Saintly and Spontaneous Mind, Love of God and Liberation of the Patria
The Festa di San'Agata
The opening day of the festival is devoted to the procession of the cannalori: 11 huge candles enshrined in elaborate gilt baroque casings and weighing up to 1,000kg are carried through the streets accompanied by a marching band and cheering crowds. 'A sira 'O Tri (the evening of the 3rd) Piazza Duomo is the scene of a concert of songs dedicated to Sant'Agata, followed by a pyrotechnic firework display to round off the first day's events...
For many, the second day of the festa is the most special. Sant'Agata's reliquary statue is carried out of the Cathedral and through the crowded streets of the city, in a day-long procession that stops off at all the places that have a connection with the saint's life, including the Church of Sant'Agata alla Fornace, site of her martyrdom. As evening falls,the statue is taken back to her resting place in the Cathedral for a well-earned rest.
The climax of the festa! After a Solemn Mass and a day of reflection, at around 6pm, the reliquary statue of Sant'Agata is once more brought out of the Cathedral for another tour of the city, up Via Etnea, across to the Church of Sant'Agata al Borgo (where she is greeted by another firework display) and then back down to the bottom of the steep Via San Giuliano for the cchianata 'i Sangiulianu. Here the statue bearers give a demonstration of their courage, faith and devotion by running to the top of the road with their heavy load, urged on by a cheering crowd. A final stop is made outside the Benedictine Convent in Via dei Crociferi before the statue is once more returned to the Cathedral. More fireworks, general rejoicing and a fantastic party ensue!
A gastonomic note: after so much devotion, it is curious (and slightly heretical!) that Sant'Agata's terrible plight is also remembered by a special cake: a mini breast-shaped cassatella - sponge cake covered with white marzipan and topped with a cherry - in local dialect called minnuzzi ri Sant'Ajita (breasts of Sant'Agata).