A great devotion in the heart of Etna

Only the Holy Week in Seville and the Corpus Domini ceremony in Cuzco, Peru, may be compared in terms of popularity, to the festivities that since 5 centuries have immutably been helding in St. Agatha’s honour. For 3 days, Catanians and tourists swarm in the streets, numbering to almost a million. During those intense days, Catania turns into one and only crowd marching behind the Patron. Today, as in antiquity, Catania – Milan of the South – preserves a secular tradition.

The location of the island in the middle of the Mediterranean – the crossroads of people and cultures – led also in Catania to the development of Christianity on a terrain where idolatrous vestiges had survived.

The 4th and 5th of February stand out among the 3 days of festivities, when St. Agatha passes through the neighbourhood on her silver carriage (Catanians call it, specifically, ‘fercolo‘ or, more commonly, ‘vara‘).

It is particularly difficult to follow the development over the centuries of the feast of St. Agatha in its various forms. Significant innovations were introduced after the cataclysmic events that struck Catania: the eruption of 1669, when the lava reached the city’s southern walls; and the earthquake of 1693, which destroyed most of south-eastern Sicily. The area most affected by eruption was where the palio races and the procession of the 4th of February were held. Overcoming the old medieval plan, the reconstruction process achieved an urban layout that was by far more suitable to the traditional setting of the St. Agatha celebrations.

If in the past the procession on the litter of the relics of the saint had to take place for pratical reasons outside the city walls, following the earthquake and the reconstruction, the city’s new configuration, with its new squares and wider streets, actually became quite suitable for the procession. After the earthquake, the litter too, was modified. Thus, while some lifted the litter on their shoulder as demanded by tradition, others pulled it with two robust and very long ropes, allowing the ‘processional machine’ to slide on the road.

The trasformation of the candles or ‘candelore‘ also took place after the earthquake. The ever changing grandiose and fanciful designs – comparable to the allegorical carts at Carnival – were gradually replaced by more stable candle-bearing structures on whose sides were depicted scenes from the saint’s martyrdom as well as other decorations. Each candelora, completed with thick wooden bars, is held aloft by 6 or 7 robust bearers who impress on it that characteristic gait during the march. Currently, eleven such candlemases still exits, each representing the ancient corporations of trades and arts.

St Agatha Feast

Devotee, with votive dresses, carrying candles in homage to the patron saint

A prominent post-earthquake innovation was the singing competition on the evening of February the 3rd, during which musical groups compete by singing hymns the enthusiasm of the public. The hymn singing contest would be replicated in the various quarters of the city.

In the procession of February the 4th, a pleasant event is represented by the tribute to the saint by the seminarists through the ‘strisciata‘ (i.e. the drag), which was introduced in the mid-1800s when the seminar was shifted from palazzo dei Chierici in piazza Duomo to a building adjacent to Porta Uzeda. In the morning, when the procession passed below the balconies of the seminarists unrolled a large quantity of long and thin coloured strups of very light paper that fluttering in air produced a very suggestive effect. This tradition, too, was interrupted in 1960. Very few variations have been introduced as far as this procession is concerned. Even when the 16th century walls were torn down to allow the city to expand, the tradition was upheld by maintaining the old route, barring a number of short detours to bring the procession closer to the new quarters. Thus, the procession reaches the Fortino quarter.

The evening procession’s second outing on the February the 5th was introduced quite late. Departing from the cathedral, the litter passed in front of the Sant’Agata Abbey before arriving at the San Placido monastery; from here it made a U-turn and went into via Stesicorea (present-day via Etnea). At Porta di Aci, it proceeded along the same street heading towards via dei Crociferi, past the monasteries of San Giuliano and San Benedetto. From piazza San Francesco, it went past the Santissima Trinità Church before heading back to the Cathedral passing in front of the monastery of Santa Chiara in via Ferdinandea (nowadays via Garibaldi).

The various aspects of the cult of St. Agatha, briefly outlined in this venue, testify the distinctive cultural and Christian traits of the people of Catania, who have identified themselves, especially in the past, with their patron saint, symbol of their redemption as well as of the sublimation of the unresolved problems handed down by history. In particular, the feast of St.Agatha, like some feasts in Eastern Sicily, continues to be broadly representative and to have an impact on both individual and collective behaviour through a ritual that periodically reproposes tradition unchanged.