Friday, July 15, 2005

Bells on a Platter

Thanks to Agatha, I'll never look at bells quite the same way again.

God knows why, but I remember Dina mentioning on the ride back from Las Vegas that this certain Catholic saint is often depicting carrying what would appear to be two bells on a plate. Dina said that a lot of people didn't realize that the two objects she held were actually her severed breasts, her martyrdom having results from horrific body mutilation.

This thought rings in my head today out of nowhere and I finally decided to Google "bells on platter breasts saint" to see if anything remotely resembling what Dina said exists in the vast compendium of knowledge that floats online. And Dina's right.

Saint Agatha died sometime in the third century, during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius. Agatha ended up in a brothel but so valued her virginity that she refused her customers, even under pain of beatings and torture. Eventually, Agatha's breasts were crushed and cut off from her body. Today, she is apparently one of the more highly revered virgin martyrs — better than that slovely Saint Agnes.

But Agatha also came to be the patroness of bellmakers, an odd association that only makes sense when you learn that artistic renderings of Agatha in paintings and stained glass showed her holding the symbols of her Christian dedication — her severed femininity — on a plate. Show and tell for martyrs, if you will. Let's be glad they didn't cut something else off. Often, however, these depictions were not realistic enough that people could spot the objects as breasts. They became bells or even bakes goods, and eventually the misinterpretation became so entrenched that some artists eventually drew her with bells and baked goods that looked nothing like breasts.

I did a quick search for images of Saint Agatha and found a few good ones. Here you can see here with the plate, but I don't see how anyone save the very prudish or naive could mistake the objects she's presenting as anything besides breasts. They're slightly more abstracted here, in this smaller painting.

Agatha's devotees celebrate her feast day on February 5. In her native Catania, some bake marzipan treats, which are eaten in her honor. The treats are called minne de vergine. I'm not sure what that translates to exactly, but I could take a guess. "Oh mom, I love your sugared virgin breasts! Another? I couldn't!"

Oh, Catholicism.

It's just too appropriate that news of the bell-breast-saint-virgin-martyr would come from Dina, of all people.

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