In Italy, patronal festivals are very popular, especially in the south. Catania, with its feast dedicated to the Martyr Agatha, is no exception. The relationship that binds the Catanese to the young Agatha also passes through Etna.
Agatha was a young Catanese woman, martyred on 5 February 251 AD by Quinziano, then Consul of the city. At that time, the repression of Christianity became fiercer. The Decius’ edict of 250 ordered all citizens of the Empire to offer public sacrifices to the gods by abjuring Christianity.
Having confirmed the death sentence on the young girl, the Catanese of the time, shocked by such cruelty, rebelled against the consul, preserving the body of Agatha.
On 1 February 252, Mount Etna decided to erupt. From Monpeluso, located about 900m above sea level on Etna’s southern flank, between the towns of Nicolosi and Pedara, a river of lava was flowing towards the city.
Mount Etna erupted a great fire, and like a burning river, so the raging fire, liquefying stone and earth, came to the city of Catania.
On 5 February, exactly one year after the young Agatha’s martyrdom, the frightened Catanese decided to carry the veil that belonged to her in procession, asking for the grace to be spared from Mount Etna’s fire.
The fire […] ceased on the day of her burial so that God would prove that […] from the fire He had freed them through the merits and prayers of Saint Agatha, we find in the Latin version of the Martyrdom of Agatha.
This was the first miracle attributed to the young Catanese girl. From that moment the Catanese, on several occasions over the past 1700 years, have turned to Agata whenever Etna, with its fury, threatened Catania. A very deep relationship binds the Catanese to Agata, whose very strong memory has not faded even with time.
Among the curiosities linked to the Catania martyr’s relationship with Etna, we certainly mention the eruption of 1669. It was the most devastating eruption our volcano has ever produced. It destroyed the foothill villages on its southern flank and part of the city of Catania.
In that occasion, a fresco depicting Agatha, hanging in a votive shrine outside the city walls, was carried away by the lava without being burnt. The painting still stands today inside the church of Sant’Agata alle sciare, along Via Vittorio Emanuele. At that time, after 122 days, the eruption ended and the Catanese decided to return to the city. In gratitude for this, Charles II of Spain (the last of the Habsburgs) decided to offer the martyr a silver votive lamp, which is still preserved inside the Cathedral.
In 1886, another lateral eruption of Etna threatened the centre of Nicolosi, the Gateway to Etna. On that occasion, too, the lava had reached just a few metres from the town. Because of this, the people invoked the help of Saint Agatha. As in 252, locals carried the veil of the invincible martyr in procession in front of the lava front. The lava stopped and Nicolosi was saved. In memory of this, a small altar, Divae Agathae Servatrici, was erected in the northern part of the town. You can see it joining our excursions to the southern flank of the volcano.
Visiting Mount Etna does not only mean visiting Europe’s highest active volcano. It means immersing yourself in the thousand-year history of a people. It means discovering the soul of Catania!