(I started this in January and took too long on it. But apparently the feast of St Agatha is this week so lets pretend I planned this. )
Okay – so the New Year has arrived – and is in fact – still here. I’m not one for New Year Resolutions – but I do tend to make the New Year an occasion for me to examine what I’m doing and how to improve it. With this in mind I should be working on social media and how to make my online presence a thing that exists. But I hate social media and am avoiding working on it so lets talk about Saint Iconography with a side note of women’s roles in history.
Warning – this will probably get a bit gory and rough. Because – history is rarely clean and pleasant. Also politics of now gets briefly mentioned.
Let me just start by saying – I am not Catholic. I was raised and vaguely identify as German Lutheran. So saints and icons are not something I was raised to hold in any high regard. (Lutherans in fact as a rule don’t have many trappings or decoration in their churches. This has changed a wee bit over the centuries but still not by much.)
But I started studying art and took several credit hours of Art History and I feel sort of Catholic by proxy at this point. So much of Western art is dominated by the church, steeped in the excess and pomp of it all. You learn the vocabulary of it pretty quick.
Blue is for the Virgin Mary – bagpipes are the devil, Luke is represented as an ox, John is an eagle. And then there are the saints, does the dude look to be having a really bad day tripping on shrooms? St Anthony. Tied to a tree and covered in arrows? That’s Sebastian. Orgasming while looking heavenwards? There’s St Teresa of Avila.
One of my old colleges also had a fairly large collection of religious icons in their art museum which I found once when I was short of inspiration. This started my bad habit of slapping halos on everything if I was short of ideas. It takes things from “random drawings” to “the artist clearly meant to make a statement of…something.”
Nativity paintings are strange and dull, Virgin Marys start to blur together, Bosch sadly had a limited catalog to look at, but saint icons are plentiful and limitless. And so very very strange. There is a patron saint of artists, saints for prostitutes, earthquakes, actors, you name it – a saint has your back. Some are described as giants, some are recorded to slay dragons, some are believed to be pagan figures folded into Catholicism. There is a saint for every sort of a occasion.
Which brings us to Saint Agatha. This holiday season was an exhausting mess in so many ways. The preparation – the family drama. The consumerism. It’s a rough ride for me and my depression but this year was a bit worse.
Sometime in early December my mother had to go to the ER and have surgery. The end result was a gaping chest wound that we had to clean and re-bandage daily. On the other side of town – my sister’s in-laws – who we are close to had to deal with cancer surgery at the same time. So lots of awkward medical surgical stuff from all angles this holiday.
On the business side of things – the one social media I didn’t suck at updating, shit the bed. Tumblr decided this December to censor all “adult content” including “female presenting nipples” (exact wording – for those that just tuned in I’m not making this up.) Cue their strange censorship algorithm flagging all sorts of images that were not in fact adult material.
Teddy bears, dancing robots, pokemon, all were found lacking in the eyes of the Purity Bot. Hilariously enough the actual paintings I DO have of topless females were not flagged, neither were any of the paintings I did of women holding severed heads, ripping their own hearts out, or holding their eyeballs on a platter.
All this brought St Agatha to the forefront of my awareness.People started jokingly posting paintings of her cause – well shes a woman holding her breasts out on a platter. Almost presenting them, one might say.
I was vaguely aware of her before this, but was not interested in her. I instead painted St Lucia with her eyes on a plate and promised myself I’d stop painting bloody saint women. (You can see how well that worked out.)
But like I said – there’s a saint for every occasion and I guess I had reached the occasion. I needed to practice my painting – and apparently had a lot of shit to get off my chest (oops a pun).
I initially set out just to be a smart ass and paint a bloody image of a woman holding her tits on a plate. I was determined to at least draw the breasts more anatomically correct than the majority of the paintings I had seen. That was my main goal.
(Fun fact in some countries people make and sell breast shaped cupcakes/ cupcake shaped breasts to commemorate Saint Agatha on her feast day.)
But as I started working on the drawing – and researching more of her iconography (I still have yet to find out why shes holding a palm) and story. My idea changed a bit.
The tale of St Agatha is not an unfamiliar one. If you know Catholic stories. She’s a female martyr. The stories tend to start with a pagan man making a proposition and ending with the girl’s death. Though hers is a lot rougher than most. (warning for talk of sexual assault and torture.)
So Agatha’s story goes; a low born pagan Roman man pursued and proposed to her. But Agatha made a vow of chastity and was not interested. So he continued to pursue and she continued to refuse. Apparently no one had taught “No means No” in Ancient Rome.
Angered, the man, who is also a judge, (this part of the story I’m confused by but moving on) knowing of her religion, had her arrested and brought to trial. No Prize for guessing who was the judge presiding.
With all the power in the situation, he threatened her with torture and death. She once again refused him. The story says he had her imprisoned in a brothel where she was raped and assaulted for a month. After this he had her brought before him again and again she refused to give up her vows. So he threw her in prison where she was tortured in numerous ways. This also includes her breasts getting ripped off with pincers. But Agatha continued to stand her ground. She was sentenced to be burned at the stake. But an earthquake occurred postponing that and so she stayed in prison. (She is a saint after all, good timing is one of their things.)
St Peter appeared to her and healed her wounds and then…the stories get hazy. She probably died in prison but no details are given.
I rarely set out to do “series” or if I do I take ages to do them. The first piece I did in this theme I had done after the Women’s March in 2016, after seeing someone use Judith Slaying Holofernes as a protest sign. (Judith is not a catholic saint but I decided I liked halos.) There are many depictions of that story but the history of that particular version is about as pleasant at the tale of Agatha. The artist, one of the few women we acknowledge in the Renaissance, is said to have painted her rapist as the man getting beheaded. The combination of the social climate of the time, (not that its better now in the aftermath of the State of the Union) and the painting struck me.
The visuals were inspired by a European film telling a story called The Flea, where a kings foolishness and carelessness gets his daughter married to an ogre. Her plight is about as pleasant as the rest of this page. Though the film gives her the happy ending of beheading her husband and presenting the head to court and folks decide to make her queen. Cause well look at this woman – she’s been through hell and survived and more in control of things than her father is.
So – my point after that ramble is, in the middle of sketching out Agatha I realized I didn’t want to just paint anatomically correct severed tits on a platter. I had been sketching her dressed, her chest covered or bandaged and her just holding her breasts. Make it a clean rendition. Cover the unpleasantness. But I decided we have too many versions of that.
Her story is not rare, its older than dirt. And it’s still A Thing. Prettying it up said nothing. Plus like I said – I myself had been spending my winter break dealing with blood and chest wounds. I was beyond squeamish at this point.
Many thanks to my good friend who I shall call the Science officer, shes a vet tech, and is the sort of person who I can ask “hey what does it look like when you sever a breast?” and she provides an estimation and then links to surgical photos. She also never asks for reasons to these sorts of questions. She’s known me too long. (I usually link or show my references – but considering my search history contained things like “mastectomy surgery” “severed limbs” “busted lips” and such, you can look those up yourself. I’m not posting it here.)
Another choice I decided to make was to show her bruises and scars. Agatha was imprisoned and whipped and tortured. This is something saint iconography ignores. I understand the logic of the why. It’s the concept of – showing them in heaven healed of their woes and their damages are just symbols to identify.
But once again, not what I wanted to focus on. Glossing over the damage doesn’t say anything I want to. We make martyrs and historical figures distant shapes in the past. Ignoring the fact that if they existed – they were people. Not symbols. They were people, they bled, they lived. We instead gloss over the details and constantly repeat them living through the same horrible situations over and over.
And welp…this got really deep for something I started to just fuck with a censorship filter. For the record this has been posted on tumblr – and their algorithm still can’t find it. But it did recently decide a photo of the Old Spice man was too racy for primetime.
For anyone interested the St Agatha painting is available for sale on