Catania and the feast of Sant’Agata, the most incredible religious festival in Europe
Edition 2020. The feast of St. Agata, patron saint of Catania, is one of the most beautiful patronal feast in the world, from 3 to 5 February three days of worship, devotion, folklore, traditions. On the days of the celebrations the traditional ‘Fiera’ market of S. Agata takes place in the city.
Catania, Via Etnea and Piazza Duomo
Every year Catania offers its patron an extraordinary feast that can be compared to the Holy Week in Seville or the Corpus Domini in Cuzco, Peru. In those three days the city forgets everything to focus on the party, a mixture of devotion and folklore, which attracts up to a million people every year, among devotees and curious. The first day is reserved for candles. An evocative popular custom wants the donated candles to be as tall or heavy as the person asking for protection. The major religious, civil and military authorities participate in the procession for the collection of wax, a brief tour from the furnace to the cathedral. Two eighteenth-century carriages, which once belonged to the senate that governed the city, and eleven “candelore”, large representative ceri (candles) of the guilds or crafts, are brought in the parade. This first day of celebration ends in the evening with a great show of fireworks in Piazza Duomo. The fireworks during the feast of St. Agatha, in addition to expressing the great joy of the faithful, take on a special meaning, because they remember that the patron saint, martyred on the embers, always watches over the fire of Etna and all the fires.
The Cathedral: fireworks on February 3rd
February 4 is the most exciting day, because it marks the first meeting of the city with the patron saint. Already from the early hours of dawn the streets of the city are populated with “citizens”. They are devotees who wear the traditional “sack” (a votive white cloth vest down to the ankle and tied at the waist by a drawstring), a black velvet cap, white gloves and waving a white handkerchief also stretched in thick folds. It represents the nocturnal clothing worn by the people of Catania when, back in 1126, they ran to meet the relics that Gisliberto and Goselmo brought back from Constantinople. But the original nightgown, over the centuries, has also been enriched with the meaning of a penitential garment: according to some, the white cloth dress is the revisitation of a liturgical garment, the black cap would remind the ashes of which the penitents’ head was covered and the waist cord would represent the hairshirt.
The Fercolo: carriage, wagon with the reliquary
Three different keys, each kept by a different person, are necessary to open the iron gate that protects the relics in the cathedral: one guards the treasurer, the second the master of ceremonies, the third the prior of the chapter of the cathedral. When the third key removes the last mandate from the gate of the room where the bust is kept, and the sacello is opened, the smiling and serene face of Sant’Agata looks out from the recess in the growing blaze of the faithful impatient to see her again. Shimmering with gold and precious gems, the bust of Saint Agatha is hoisted on the silver Renaissance fercolo (carriage, wagon with the reliquary), lined with red velvet, the color of the blood of martyrdom, but also the color of the kings. Before leaving the cathedral for the traditional procession along the streets of the city, Catania welcomes its patron with the solemn “Messa dell’Aurora”, celebrated the Archbishop. Among the clanging of party shots, the fercolo (carriage, wagon with the reliquary) is loaded with the precious casket with relics and carried in procession through the city.
Sant´Agata, the bust, a 6 century old masterpiece of refined and precious art
The “giro”, the procession of day 4, lasts the whole day. The fercolo (carriage, wagon with the reliquary) crosses the places of martyrdom and traces the events of the history of the “santuzza”, which intertwine with that of the city: the cathedral, the places of martyrdom, hurriedly, without stops, almost to avoid the sad renewal of the sad memories. A pause is also made at the “marina”(the port) from which the people of Catania, saddened and unarmed, saw the relics of the saint leave for Constantinople. Then a stop at the plague column, which recalls the miracle performed by St. Agatha in 1743, when the city was spared from the epidemic. The “citizens” drive the fercolo (carriage, wagon with the reliquary) among the crowd that is gathered along the streets and in the squares. In four thousand or five thousand they pull the heavy car. All strictly wear the votive sack and in small steps, in the crowd, drag the fercolo (carriage, wagon with the reliquary) that, empty, weighs 17 quintals, but, with the addition of the ‘Scrigno’ (treasure casket), the bust and the wax load, can weigh up to 30 quintals. At a cadenced rhythm and waving white handkerchiefs, they cry: “citizens, citizens, all devotees all, citizens, viva Saint Agatha”, a hymn that also means: “Saint Agatha is alive” in the crowd. The “tour” ends at night when the fercolo (carriage, wagon with the reliquary) returns to the cathedral.
Votive candles carried on the shoulders of thousands of devotees during the procession route on February 4 and 5. They range from the most common of 300 grams to the largest and most characteristic one meter and seventy tall and weighing 120 kg
On February 5th the the red carnations of the previous day (symbolizing martyrdom), are replaced by white ones (representing purity) on the fercolo (carriage, wagon with the reliquary). Late in the morning, the Mass is celebrated in the cathedral. At sunset the second part of the procession begins, which winds through the streets of the center of Catania, also crossing the “Borgo”, the district that welcomed the refugees from Misterbianco after the 1669 eruption. The most awaited moment is the passage on the street of San Giuliano, which due to the slope is the most dangerous point of the whole procession. It represents a test of courage for the “citizens”, but is also interpreted – depending on how the “obstacle” is overcome – as a celestial sign of good or bad omen for the whole year. At dawn on day 6, the fercolo with the relics reaches Via Crociferi. It is the moment when the Saint greets the city before the conclusion of the festivities. Throughout the night, thousands of citizens in white coats defy the cold of the night, shouting “Viva Sant’Agata”, in a moment full of magic and spirituality. At this point, while suddenly the atmosphere becomes silent, the angelic song of the cloistered nuns rises. The origin of the text and music is lost in the mists of time, even if a legend tells that its author was a Sicilian named Tarallo, who composed it specifically for the cloistered nuns of San Benedetto. At night the fireworks mark the closing of the festivities. When the people of Catania return the reliquary and the casket to the cathedral, their white sacks are fully sweat, the faces marked by fatigue, the muscles hurt, the voice reduced to a thin thread. But the satisfaction of having carried the body of St. Agatha in triumph through the streets of Catania fills everyone with joy and repays those labors. It will be necessary to wait several months, the summer holiday of 17 August, or another year (the feast of February 5), to see once again the smiling good face of the saint who was a martyr for the salvation of the Christian faith in Catania.
The cloistered nuns of Saint Benedict
The fercolo (carriage, wagon with the reliquary) is a refined silver work used to carry in procession the sacred relics of the Catanese martyr through the city streets during the days of the agate festivities. It was the work of Vincenzo Archifel in 1519, enriched by his son Antonio; over the centuries it was embellished with new decorations: the brands and the initials on the silver parts testify how over time different workers, especially the people of Catania and Messina, took turns in the realization of the work that over the centuries underwent several transformations and damages, the last of which following the bombings of the Second World War which determined the total reconstruction. In the basement below, various panels illustrate scenes from the life of the martyrdom of the Saint and the return to Catania of the relics from Constantinople; at the top of the roof, surrounded by statuettes representing the 12 apostles, symbols linked to St. Agatha and her martyrdom, such as a crown, a lily and a palm tree.
Eighteenth-century carriage, which once belonged to the senate that governed the city
The feast of St. Agatha is inseparable from the traditional parade of the “candelore”, huge candles covered with handcrafted decorations, putti in gilded wood, saints and scenes of martyrdom, flowers and flags. The candelore precedes the fercolo (carriage, wagon with the reliquary) in procession, because at one time, when electric lighting was lacking, they had the function of illuminating the passage to the participants in the procession. They are carried on the shoulders by a number of carriers that, depending on the weight of the candle, can vary from 4 to 12 men. The master goldsmiths of the fourteenth century had created the bust of Sant’Agata, a masterpiece of refined and precious art. But the people, always close to the patron, wanted to be present in the party with their own creations, works of craftsmanship that represented, in addition, associations of various categories of workers. Each of the 11 candles has a precise identity. On the shoulders of the bearers, it comes alive and lives its own uniqueness, which consists of several elements: the shape that characterizes the candle, the gait and the type of sway that is given to it, the choice of a march as a musical background.
The Candelore: large representative candles of the guilds or crafts brought in the parade
The candelore always parade in the same order. The small candelora of Monsignor Ventimiglia opens the procession. The first large candle represents the inhabitants of the district of San Giuseppe La Rena and was built at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is followed by that of the gardeners and florists, in Gothic-Venetian style. The third in order of exit is that of the fishmongers, in late-Baroque style with holy decoration and small fishes. Its unmistakable pass earned the candelora the nickname of “bersagliera”. The following candle is that of the greengrocers, which instead has elegant steps and is therefore called the “Miss”. The butchers’ one is a four-tiered tower. The candelore of the pasta makers is a simple eighteenth-century candlestick without scenery. The candelora of the pizzicagnoli and bettolieri is in liberty style, that of the bakers is the heaviest of all, adorned with great angels, and for its cadenza is called the “mother”. The procession is closed by the candelora of the city circle of St. Agatha, which was introduced by Cardinal Dusmet. In the past, the candelores were even more numerous: there were those of the shoemakers, of the confectioners, of the masons, until reaching the number of 28 in some periods.
During the holiday period, desserts linked to the tradition of the Catanese saint could not be missed. In addition to the famous calia e simenza, present at every party in Catania, some sweets are made for the occasion that have a reference to sant’Agata, such as the “Cassateddi di Sant’Aita” and the “Olivette”. These are characteristic and symbolic sweets related to the virgin of Catania. The cassateddi, or “Minni di Sant’Aita” refer to the breasts that were torn from the saint during the martyrs to which she was subjected, to force her to abjure her faith. The olives, however, refer to a legend. The saint was being chased by the men of Quinziano and had stopped to rest for a moment near the pretorian palace. At the same place where she bent to tie a shoe, an olive tree appeared out of nowhere and the young girl could take shelter and also feed on its fruits. Even today, to renew the memory of that prodigious event, it is customary to cultivate an olive tree in a flower bed near the places of martyrdom, and to consume these typical sweets made with ‘pasta reale’ (marzipan) during the holidays.
Saint Agatha: the recess in the cathedral
THE PLACES OF CULT
THE CATHEDRAL OF SANT’AGATA – Reliquary bust of Sant’Agata by Giovanni di Bartolo (1373, Sant’Agata Chapel) – Casket of the relics of Sant’Agata, late fifteenth / sixteenth century (sacellum of the chapel of Sant’Agata).
The prison where St. Agatha was locked up during the trial, brought after the martyrdom, healed by the apostle Peter and where she breathed her last breath on February 5, 251 AD – Outside the prison a lava stone block preserves the impressed footprints of St. Agatha.
SANT’AGATA AL CARCERE – Church that was built in front of the prison where the patron saint of the city, St. Agatha was locked up during the trial, brought after her martyrdom, healed by the apostle Peter and where she breathed her last breath on February 5, 251 AD – Outside the prison, to the left of the current access gate, a lava stone block preserves, according to tradition, the impressed footprints of St. Agatha.
Roman sarcophagus where the body of the young martyr was initially buried
CHURCH SANT’AGATA LA VETERE – Sarcophagus where the body of the young martyr was initially buried.
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