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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

A guided tour of Saint Agatha Cathedral in Catania Sicily Italy

A guided tour of the Cattedrale di San't Agata (the Catania Cathedral) is a must do when in Catania. For a well spent three-euro donation, visitors can take a one-hour tour of the Cathedral, entering spaces not accessible to the general public. Tours are in both Italian and English. Private tours in other languages can be arranged in advance.

An exterior shot of St Agatha Cathedral in a baroque style. Located in Catania Italy this two storey cathedral is adorned with pillars and statues

To know about the Cathedral, you should know about Saint Agatha (the patron saint of Catania) whom the Cathedral is named after. Her relics (bones of her head, leg and head, plus her veil) are kept in a room in the church. They are taken out and paraded around Catania once a year, on her feast day – 5 February. The Festival of St Agatha lasts for 5 days at the beginning of February.

This young and beautiful girl was born in Catania around 231AD and died in 251AD, aged only twenty years old. Agatha was put to death for her profession of faith, and is a virgin martyr. When Agatha was fifteen years old, she made a vow of virginity and spurned the persistent advances of the Roman prefect Quintianus. The rejected and angry man had poor Agatha arrested, interrogated, and sent to live in a brothel. He continued to hope she would change her mind. When she still refused him and kept to her faith, he had her breasts amputated with pinchers and she was thrown in jail. Noone was allowed to comfort or feed her. However, the Apostle Peter healed her while she was in prison.

Disillusioned Quintainus, still hoping that after all this torture she would succumb and marry him, had her interrogated. Lovely Agatha rejected him and kept professing her faith. She was then stripped naked and tortured by being thrown onto hot coals. At twenty years old, she died in prison just after this terrible event.

Agatha is the patron saint of rape victims, breast cancer patients, wet nurses, and bellfounders (due to the shape of her severed breasts).


My tour started with a quick history of the church, from the original 1094AD building as a fort and church. On the floor in the main chapel, three different floor levels can be seen in a few barricaded spots. Behind a locked door and up two flights of stairs the tour took us to the ancient medieval part of the church. It was a strategic position for a fort, built to defend the city. Today standing on the parapet, the views encompass the port and ocean beyond. Looking to the building you can see the medieval stonework and holes where arrows could be fired from.

the back of the church from the outside shows the different stages of building over the centuries

A visit to a medieval room on the same floor hosts a display of photographs from the Feast of St Agatha over various years. The devotees totally fill the square in front of the Cathedral.

thousands of devotees fill the square in front of the Cathedral for the annual parade of Saint Agatha

Back down to the bottom floor and through another locked door we entered The Virgin Lady’s Chapel – the chapel of Aragon’s Royal Family. Inside is a monumental altar in polychrome marble that was originally placed in the presbytery of the church. There are three sarcophagus’ inside this chapel. The first is the made of marble and made for Queen Constanza of Aragon (1343 – 1363), the wife of Frederico III. She died giving birth to her daughter Maria. The detail is remarkable. On the walls of her final resting place are carvings of the original church, and the Queen with two pageboys praying at the foot of the Virgin Mary. Both the Spanish and the Argonese coats of arms are also carved here. On the cover is a carving of the Queen lying on her deathbed.

a stone coffin with a carving of a Queen on the lid and pictures of her life carved into the surrounding sides. It lays in a church.

The second is the marble sarcophagus of five members of the Aragonese Royal Family and dates from the late third century, except for the cover. It holds the remains of:

· Frederico II (King of Sicily) who died in 1337

· Giovanni, son of Frederico III, (king of the Kingdom of Sicily) died in 1348

· Ludovico (son of Frederico’s son Pietro) who reigned until his death in 1355

· Maria (daughter of Constanza of Aragon and Frederico III) died 1401

· Pietro (son of Maria) died in 1400 aged just under two years old

a marble sarcophagus of five members of the Italian royal family dates from the 1300s. Figures are carved into the four surrounding sides to resemble the buried royals.

The third sarcophagus is made of wood and was used only once, to move the body of the Blessed Cardinal Giuseppe Benedetto Dusmet (1818 – 1894) from the cemetery of Catania to the Cathedral. He was originally buried in the Monumental Cemetery of Catania.

an ornately carved wooded coffin stands in the cathedral

His mummified body now rests in an urn under the altar of the Virgin in the Cathedral. Through a glass front panel, visitors can see the body with a metal face mask, dressed in religious garments and glimpse his mummified hands. The Cardinal was beautified in 1988. This means that the Catholic Church recognizes the ascension of the deceased person to Paradise. They have the ability to intercede on behalf of those who pray in their name. Dusmet was born into a wealthy family and when he inherited the family money, he gave it all away to the poor. He was ordained a deacon in 1840, a priest in 1841, Archbishop in 1867 and Cardinal in 1889.

On the base of his monument is carved his words "As long as we have a panettello we will share it with the poor"

Moving along on the tour, we passed through the red ropes that normally hold back visitors near the main altar. For those who like to take photographs, this is a chance to click away without people standing in front and blocking the shot.

front of church, walls are decorated with frescos of bilblical scenes. the roof is too

It was also a chance to see the amazing wooden carvings up close, created in the early 2000s, that adorn the stands near the altar.

a wooden carved church pulpit of an angel blowing a trumpet.
carved wooden church pulpit

Through another locked door our tour entered the dressing room for the priors, the sacristy.

a room where the priests get ready for the mass is lined in wood with religious paintings.

A large fresco by Giacinto Platania graces one of the walls. It depicts the 1669 eruption and the lava flow that surrounded the left side of Catania. It is an interesting glimpse of the past, as most of the town was subsequently destroyed in the earthquake of 1693 and rebuilt in an entirely different pattern. In the fresco, Michael Angelis Bonadies (1603 – 1686), Bishop of the Catholic Church, is painted on the wharf blessing people who are escaping the lava flow. He is also painted just below the main picture.

a fresco of the lava flow that surrounded Catania but left the buildings untouched.

Being able to have a detailed guided tour for such a small donation was definitely worthwhile. Seeing behind locked doors into areas not available to the general public gave a more detailed appreciation of the beauty and history of the Cathedral. After the hour tour, I was then free to wander the chapel and admire the rest of the artwork and architecture of this beautiful building. Even the front doors of the Cathedral are beautifully carved.

elaborately carved wooden church doors with biblical references

The Cathedral is located in Piazza del Duoma, Catania, Sicily, Italy

Open each day between 7am and noon, except on Sunday when it is open 7.30am to 12.30pm

map of Italy showing position of Catania

Happy Travels!

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1 Kommentar

23. Jan.

What an interesting place - however, I'm sure Dusmet was beatified rather than beautified!

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