ZURBARÁN, Francisco de
(b. 1598, Fuente de Cantos, d. 1664, Madrid)

St Agatha

Oil on canvas
Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Born in Catania, Sicily, at the foot of Mount Etna, Agatha decided to remain a virgin and dedicate her life to Christ. The Prefect of Sicily, Quintian, hearing of her great beauty, tried to seduce her. Faced with her rejection, he sent her into a brothel, but even there she miraculously preserved her virgin state. She was then subjected to a singularly cruel torture. She was attached head down to a column, and her breasts twisted or torn off with a pair of pincers. The next day, St Peter visited her in her dungeon and healed her wounds. She was then brought before a court and hauled over hot coals until she died, crying out her thanks to God.

Protector of Sicily, Agatha is invoked against the eruption of Etna and other volcanoes, as well as against lightning, fires and earthquakes. Her cult quickly gained the mainland and is strong in central and northern Italy (Cremona, for example) and as far as eastern France, Germany and Spain, where she protects against fire. She is also the patron saint of nursemaids, and of bell-founders (the latter apparently because of the resemblance in shape between bells and breasts).

St Agatha is normally represented as a noble young girl carrying her severed breasts on a platter, like in the painting by Zurbarán.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.