The ancient walled city of Valletta, the capital of Malta, boasts fine Baroque architecture, the most ornate cathedral I have ever seen, imposing maritime forts and beautiful small gardens.
But explore the maze of streets, and tucked away you find quite a few traditional family-run shops with old style shopfronts.
So let me introduce you to another side of one of Europe's most beautiful cities.
This holy trinity of suffering saints adorns the ancient Maltese city of Mdina, an ancient walled city - largely Baroque in architecture - which has a population of under 300. It remains the seat of the Catholic archdiocese of Malta, and has seven churches - most of them still in use.
Of our saints, this post is about the one on the right - St Agatha.
She is a Sicilian 'virgin' martyr from the mid-third century. The story goes that she resisted the advances of the local Roman governor, who then informed on her as a Christian. She was tortured and imprisoned, and died in jail.
At one time during her religious persecution, Agatha and some friends escaped from Sicily to Malta, and stayed in a small crypt in Rabat (adjoining Mdina). She only spent a short time in Malta, but that accounts for the particular reverence of her on the Maltese islands. The church that the statues in Mdina overlook is dedicated to St Agatha.
She is one of Malta's patron saints and it is said that her intercession saved the island from Turkish invasion in the mid-sixteenth century.
Squeamish readers should perhaps stop here. The story of St Agatha's sufferings is not pleasant; and the manner in which they have been represented in sacred art is excruciating.
According to the church, St Agatha's tortures extended to the cutting off of her breasts with tongs. (I did warn you!) This is depicted in the painting above and in stained glass in Rouen cathedral in France.
These are, as you can see, fairly graphic. But even they are nothing compared to the Mdina statue.
Agatha is the patron saint of rape victims, breast cancer patients, wet nurses, and (due to the shape of her severed breasts!) bellfounders.
This painting shows her in jail before the tongs were applied -
But if you think that we have now plumbed the depth of the meeting ground between the macabre and the sacred, I have to inform you that in religious art of the early modern period, St Agatha was often represnted carring her breasts on a salver.
And indeed there is a custom in some localities of Southern Europe of marking the feast of St Agatha - it's the 5th February, since you ask - by making breast-shaped pastries or buns. These are sometimes called the Minne di Sant'Agata ("Breasts of St. Agatha") or Minni di Virgini ("Breasts of the virgin"). Those shown here come from Sicily.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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