I was with friends yesterday visiting the Royal Academy‘s current exhibition of Giorgione  “In the Age of Giorgione”  and I was asked about this provocative depiction of Saint Agatha by Giovanni Cariani 

St Agatha

To be honest I couldn’t remember whether Saint Agatha had, like St Lucia, mutilated her own body to make herself less attractive to a prospective spouse, or whether severing her breasts was part of her torture by the Romans to persuade this Sicilian beauty to renounce Christianity. According to her legend, the latter was the case.

The provenance of this painting is that it is believed to have been painted in Venice between 1510-15 by Giovanni Cariani , an artist born near Bergamo, who was also known as Giovanni Busi or Il Cariani.

The sitter, who might well have been called Agatha, is wearing clothing that would have been fashionable in Renaissance Venice during that period, and the hilltop town depicted through the arch behind her could have been the town where she was born and brought up before her marriage, or possibly Bergamo ,where the artist was known to have been working a little later in his career?

As always with Renaissance portraits this image tells us about the sitter as well as the Saint she is portraying.  She looks resolute as she fondles one of her own breasts on a plate, fastidiously holding the palm frond, the symbol of her martyrdom, upright between them. One could imagine that she is proud of her bright silk and satin clothing and her namesakes victory over her Roman persecutors – but not necessarily concerned about having her beauty idealised for her portrait.

Saint Agatha, as a virgin martyr, was rather a popular subject amongst painters of Christian Martyrs because it gave them an opportunity to paint a suffering female in the nude, as demonstrated by this painting of her, done by one of Giorgione’s pupils, Sebastiono del Piombo.

Sebastiano_del_Piombo_001-Saint Agatha

The instruments used to tweak Agatha’s breasts are similar to those used to remove the nails from Christ’s hands and feet after his deposition so she is linked to Christ through her suffering.

                                           Note pliers on the cross

Filippino Lippi-deposition

Agatha must have been brave indeed to endure the agony of this mutilation without tears or screaming.

Her post-life reward is to be remembered as the patron saint of Catania, where she was born and buried, as well as  Molise, Malta, San Marino, and Zamarramala, a municipality of the Province of Segovia in Spain.

She must be busy in the after-life dealing with the supplications of the breast cancer patients, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders and bakers, as well as those faced with fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna – for all of whom she is the Patron Saint.

The Giorgione Exhibition hosts a few works by this short-lived artist, but it also features the many artists who followed his fine example in portraits, landscapes, and devotional works.

It culminates with his extraordinary portrait of La Vecchia, holding a paper bearing the grim notice “Col Tempo” – Not quite Hamlet with his skull but the same unhappy message “Let her paint an inch thick – to this end she will come!”


The Exhibition continues at the Royal Academy until the 5th June 2016.