The March of St. Agatha – Celebrating a Life Misunderstood

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It is February 6th, 9.15 am.  Shrilling bangers[1] shatter and split a gloomy, rainy sky.
The Cathedral’s festive bells welcome back the flowing river of devotees, dressed with their white cotton saccu[2]  and their black velvet scuzzetta[3] , a monastic string around their waist.  Fluttering their white gloves towards her, with a final emotional pathos they shout “Tutti devoti tutti, cittadini evviva Sant’Agata[4].
She is back. ‘A Santuzza[5]  is finally home, after three long exhausting feast days, culminating in a spectacular all-night procession through the city for which hundreds of thousands of residents and tourists turn out.

Devotion and entertainment. Miracles and money. Believers and audience. Faith and crime. A billion contradictory and paradoxical adjectives may fit this celebration, the third largest religious Catholic feast in the world, which boasts around a million participants. For seventy-two hours the city of Catania, listed in 2002 in the UNESCO Word Heritage for its beautiful baroque style architecture, dramatically changes its daily routine and allows a peaceful invasion of devotees, pilgrims, tourists and onlookers. Now its elegant Baroque-style historical centre resembles a chaotic Medieval market, crammed with stalls of local street food, candies,  kids’ balloons, souvenirs and peddlers of all kinds.

St. Agatha is the city’s patron saint, and on February 5th each year the masses not only remember her but celebrate her.  On this day the whole town renders homage to ‘a santuzza with a grand, imposing and involving procession, a perfect example of sacred and profane, of ardent devotion and human weakness.

The life of St Agatha was fascinating, thrilling and horrifying.  Born around 238 B.C. to a rich and noble Sicilian family, her life was comprised of interrogation, torture, resistance, and triumph. At the age of about 15, having dedicated her virginity to God, Agatha rejected the amorous advances of the low-born Roman prefect Quintianus, and was then persecuted by him for her Christian faith.  A young, beautiful, virgin she was tortured, her breasts violently cut off with a pair of tongs. February 5th was not a date of celebration for Agatha, for it is when she died in her jail cell.   Her relics were then stolen and transported to Constantinople by a Byzantine general and finally returned to Catania in 1126, where they are now guarded inside an invaluable silver bust and silver chest dating back to 1376, adorned with a great quantity of precious ex voto jewels.  Among these is her crown, said to be a sign of the devotion of King Richard Lion Heart, on his way back to England from a crusade.

St Agatha’s feast is powerfully vibrant and engaging.  The festive reminiscences of the once-maligned, now revered Agatha begin on the 3rd and end three days later, on the 6th of February, sometime after the dawn. That flowing river of devotees, hundreds of thousands of indefatigable men and women, accompanies every moment of the feast even under persistent rains and unusual cold. They are, in fact, the feast’s main characters, carrying upon their shoulders the twelve massive and heavy cannalore[6].  A group of 4 to 12 stocky tartars slowly and shakily moves them forward, the distinctive annacata. Gold decorated according to the Baroque or Art Nouveau style, the cannalore belongs to the historical Catanese art and craft guilds.
Early morning February 3rd , the stage is the historical fish market located  close to the Cathedral and the Town Hall. Here, the pisciari[7], the chiancheri[8] and the fruttivendoli[9], the symbolic owners of the market, give life to an extraordinary piece of folk theatre, challenging one another in a sort of annacata endurance test, while the mood of the audience is kept alive by each one’s band playing cheerful marches, supporters singing aloud and rainbow-colored candies raining from the balconies all around. The procession of the cannalore is opened by the smallest of them carried by a tiny old woman, alone, walking barefoot for the three days.  This is her gift to her saint, for a great miracle she received.

The Dawn Mass in the Cathedral, crammed to the maximum capacity, opens the celebrations of the 4th of February. This is the first solemn celebration for the Saint, the first intimate meeting between Agatha and her devotees. It is a truly mystical moment, with citizens of every age expressing all their devotion by praying and singing hymns and waiting for her, despite the exertion of moving and even breathing in the crowd. Finally, she appears, her bust released from the annual seclusion. Her benevolent look is addressed first to the aisle then to the nave, the devotees fluttering their white gloves towards her, for the proper welcome, shouting “Tutti devoti tutti, cittadini evviva Sant’Agata”.When Agatha is set on the high altar, the mass begins.  It follows around the so called “external tour” of the town, ending in the dead of night after the spectacular fireworks at the Porta Ferdinandea, named by the local people ‘u futtino, the blockhouse.

A tongue of fire, similar to a lava eruption from Mt Etna, the active volcano dominating Catania, invades the streets of the town. This is one of the most impressive moments of the procession, always preceding the arrival of St. Agatha, a large group of about a thousand devotees carrying lit torches and heavy candles.   The heaviest weight is the candle they carry and the greatest is the miracle they ask the Saint.  Carriers are usually young devotees, boys the most of them.  It is impressive to watch their effort while carrying candles often as big as they are.

Hundreds of devotees pull the two 130mt long cordons used to draw the heavy carriage, a silver temple with a fine chiseled cupola or domed roof resting on six Corinthian style columns, containing both the reliquary bust and the chest of St. Agatha. This is considered a great honour which can quickly turn into great risk during another spectacular moment of the feast, when the procession draws to a close and in the middle of the night thousands of devotees run and drag the heavy carriage along the steep climb of Via di San Giuliano, with people lined along each side.

Excitement and strain suddenly surrender to emotion as soon as the carriage turns onto the most beautiful street in town, Via dei Crociferi, a Baroque style masterpiece, to stop in front of the Benedictine monastery. The sweet singing of the secluded nuns welcomes the dawn, petals of roses launched from behind their gateways.  This is the most evocative moment of the feast, rendering the chaotic crowd silent.

It is now February 6th.  The sun shines high above the horizon and St. Agatha slowly returns inside the Cathedral, to rest for another year.

[1] Banger: kind of fireworks

[2] Saccu: a sort of habit

[3] Scuzzetta: typical head gear

[4] Difficult to render, the correct translation of this Sicilian sentence sounds like: We all are devotees, aren’t we? Citizens, hurray for Sant’Agata!”

[5]A Santuzza: the child Saint

[6] Cannalore: or candelore in Italian, symbolize huge candles carried as assign of devotion

[7] Pisciari: fishmongers

[8] Chianchieri: the butchers

[9] Fruttivendoli: the greengrocers