Agatha lived around 250 CE. Her story shares similarities with that of Saint Lucy, as she refused many offers of marriage and instead chose to devote herself to God. But when Agatha denied her hand to Quintian, a Roman prefect, he had her imprisoned in a brothel, tortured and eventually put to death.
One of the torture methods used on Agatha was the removal of her breasts, and for this reason she is often depicted carrying a dish with two breasts (much like paintings of Saint Lucy with her eyes on a plate). It is thought her breasts set on the platter were mistaken by art viewers as loaves of bread or bells, hence her attribution as the patron saint of bakers and bell-founders. More recently, Agatha has been venerated as the patron saint of breast cancer sufferers.
Pierre della Francesca was an Italian painter of the Early Renaissance, whose skills as a mathematician and geometer were reflected in his use of geometric forms and perspective. Can you see his use of geometry in his portrait of St. Agatha?
Lanfranco captures the element of Agatha’s story when Saint Peter tended Agatha’s wounds following her torture, thereby healing her. This work was painted shortly after Lanfranco returned to Rome from his native Parma and shows the influence of Caravaggio on his style.
The emphasis here is on light, which streams into the darkened room from a single window. It falls upon Agatha, who is bleeding and exposed, symbolizing her vulnerability. Her small breasts and physical size in comparison to the other figures hint at her young age. Saint Peter is shrouded in darkness, though we see his hand reaching for her bleeding wound. An angel appears as well, a symbol of the spiritual power in the room and Agatha’s own holiness.