(This was originally posted in a different blog. This is one of my favorite entries, so I thought I'd post it here as well. I have made a few changes to the original.)
St. Agatha, Francisco de Zurbaran 1630-33
Dear Virgin and Martyr, whom the Church recalls in her liturgy, you heroically resisted the temptations of a degenerate ruler. Subjected to long and horrible tortures, you remained faithful to your heavenly Spouse. Saint Peter, we are told, gave you some solace and so you are invoked by nurses. Encourage them to see Christ in the sick and to render true service to them. Amen
- Prayer to Saint Agatha
As you can probably guess from the prayer. The lovely lady in the painting is Saint Agatha who was born in Catania, Sicily around 231 CE and died around 251 CE.
You might be wondering about that plate she's carrying. You might be even thinking, "are those . . .?"
Those are breasts. Her breasts.
Saint Agatha of Sicily, Orazio Riminaldi, 1625
I first learned about St. Agatha in 6th grade, during Sunday school, during a Catholic sex ed class.
According to legend, Saint Agatha was a beautiful young noble woman, who have devoted her life to Christ. Unfortunately she caught the eye of a Roman prefect. When she turned down his sexual advances, he turned her over to a brothel in hopes they would teach her a thing or two.
But Agatha wasn't having any of it. She was a chaste, servant of God, and that was it. The prefect could go jump in a lake.
Instead of jumping in a lake, the prefect had her tortured. One of the most significant acts was her breasts were cut off.
Now according to Catholic writings St. Peter cured her, and made her breasts grow back. She continued to be tormented in other nasty ways (including being rolled naked in a bed of hot coals), until she died in prison.
She is the patron saint of many things, including bell makers (because her amputated breasts look like bells), rape victims, torture victims, and more recently, breast cancer patients.
There's even a cupcake type confection named after her, Capezzoli di St Agatha.
In art, St. Agatha is often portrayed carrying her breasts on a platter:
Other depictions choose to show her with simply an instrument of her torture:
The leering men. The way that one man (the prefect?) leans back as he watches. And there's the look on her face; it seems to be a mix of pain and rapture. Look at her line of sight; she isn't looking at any of them. There's part of me that wonders if people got off on pictures like this.
Of the images I've seen, my favorite one is probably by Giovanni Tiepolo:
I like the rough quality of the painting. I like the way the whiteness of her skin contrasts with the rest of the painting. The look on her face is less about religious ecstasy, then asking "why?"
When I related this story to a friend she asked "so what's the moral? Turn down a guy and have your boobs cut off?"
The moral, is that despite being raped and tortured, Agatha refused to give up her commitment to God. If you read any stories of various Catholic Saints, you'll find that they place a fairly strong emphasis on female chastity. Tale, after tale involves women going through horrible lengths to remain chaste. And while the male saints often have equally gruesome ends, and while many of them took a pledge to remain virgins as well, their chastity is often a side-note, and not a primary reason for their persecution.
One has to remember that these tales emerged from pretty horrible times. Disease was rampant, if you lived past five you were lucky, or perhaps unlucky. You worked until you fell over dead. And it was even worse if you were a woman. Rape law? Non-existent. Father wants you to marry some ugly, diseased troll. Tough luck. But you had one thing, the promise of heaven.