Sant’Agata, Catania

Tortured by Roman soldiers in the year 251 CE, Agatha refused to renounce Christianity even when her breasts were being cut off. Today breasts are her symbol and even pastries take their shape – I went to Catania to try the sweet ricotta-filled cassatelle di Sant’Agata and to experience the Saint Agatha Festival, one of the biggest religious celebrations of the world.

Today, February 5, is festa di sant’Agata, held in memory of the patron saint of Catania, the second largest city of Sicily. Normally frequented by thousands, it is one of the biggest religious celebrations of the world. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event has been limited. Its most important part – the procession of Saint Agatha’s relics – was canceled. But the Catanese still celebrated by lighting candles and praying on the streets. Many wore the traditional white robes and black caps, inspired by medieval nightgowns.

All in the memory of the patroness of the city, Agatha, martyred in the year 251.

Saint Agatha was born and lived here in the 3rd century CE, during the time of severe persecution of Christians in the Roman empire. She refused to renounce her religion and was tortured by having her breasts cut off with pincers. Today the Catholic church celebrates the martyr as the patron of breast cancer patients, rape victims and wet nurses. The devotees pray to her also to prevent earthquakes and eruptions of Etna.

Saint Agatha holding a platter with breasts is a common motif in European painting. The Catania Cathedral is dedicated to her and city’s pastry shops and cafes serve a dessert named after her.

Maybe you’ve heard of the Sicilian cassata – a large marzipan and sugar packed cake. The Catanian cassatella is a small version of it, less decorative and shaped like breasts. Liqueur-soaked sponge cake is filled with sweet ricotta cheese encased in thick icing and topped with a candied cherry nipple. It’s one of the sweetest things I’ve ever tasted.

I visited Catania more than once and I must say that I enjoy it thoroughly. There’s a lot to see and a lot to eat. My next blog post will be exactly about that – a gastronomic walk around the city. Stay tuned.