St Agatha, a Christian Saint and Martyr, is the reason for one of the largest gatherings in Sicily every year.
In the city of Catania, which is home to the volcano Mount Etna, a festival takes place every February between 3rd and 5th, to mark the death of St Agatha, a woman who maintained her faith in the face of immense cruelty.
The legend states that St Agatha, a rich woman of noble birth who had dedicated her virginity to God, became the object of amorous advances from Roman prefect Quintianus.
Refusing to accept rejection, Quintianus, who had hounded St Agatha for her Christianity, sent her to a brothel as punishment, where she was tormented by the brothel owner, Aphrodisia, who tried to force Agatha to worship idols and submit to Quintianus.
Further rejection angered Quintianus exacted his revenge upon Agatha through a series of tortures, the most notable of which, was the severing of her breasts. Different records then tell of further tortures, which alternate between Agatha being burned at the stake, and rolled naked on a bed of hot coals at the order of Quintianus.
During her burning, it is said that the ground began to shake, and Mount Etna erupted at the sign of St Agatha’s torment. She later died in prison on February 5th.
To mark the occasion of her death, church services commonly celebrate the period with an appropriate mass, and lavish processions line the streets of Catania each year, with models of the saint displayed on floats, and local church members leading the procession.
The event is so large that television crews are often present at the festival, recording the footage of the ever-growing crowds gathered in commemoration.
Hundreds of market stalls line Via Etnea in the city centre of Catania, selling sweets, cakes and nuts. Small round cakes covered in white icing with a red cherry in the middle are very popular during the festival period, as their form represents St Agatha’s severed breasts and thus her enduring faith. These cakes are not only found on the street stalls of Catania, but in bakeries and cake shops throughout Sicily at this time.
Young men and women dressed in white robes also line the streets on either side, carrying enormous candles on their backs ready to light the way for the procession. Candle wax and ash fills the streets, and many onlookers find themselves covered by the end of the festival.
It is a truly magical experience, which attracts locals and tourists alike, for an event that spans three evenings and culminates in an extravagant firework display.