Sunday, December 25, 2016

Love's Pure Light -- Light From Darkness

Federico Barocci, Nativity
Italian, 1597
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Silent Night, Holy Night,

All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace, 
Sleep in heavenly peace.

There is probably not one church in the world where the famous carol, "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" in one of its many translations, is not sung sometime during the Christmas season.  And there is good reason for this.  The Scriptures read during the midnight Mass for Christmas emphasize the darkness pierced by light.

In the first reading we hear the words of Isaiah "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwell in the land of gloom a light has shone." (Isaiah 9:1) and the Gospel of Luke tells us that at the birth of Jesus "Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock." (Luke 2:8).  Hence, the image of the Nativity created in our minds is of an event that takes place in the dark, not a metaphorical dark, as darkness is used in the Old Testament Scripture just cited, but a real dark, the dark of night.

In our minds we see Mary and Joseph, their quest for a place to stay for the birth frustrated by the late hour and nowhere to shelter but a stable. We imagine the birth taking place in the darkness, perhaps lit only by a candle.  We see the shepherds on the nearby hills, astonished as "the glory of the Lord shone around them" (Luke 9:9) and arriving at the stable in the dark to see "the infant lying in the manger" (Luke 9:16).

Even though this emphasis on darkness is very strong it was many centuries before it was explored by artists.  Initial images of the Nativity presented the scene against a golden background in a kind of eternal timelessness. 

Pietro Cavallini, Nativity
Italian, 1296-1300
Rome, Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere

Although replaced in the later middle ages by indications of landscape and interiors, this remained pretty much how things were seen until the early fifteenth century.

Lorenzo Monaco, Nativity
Italian, c.1406-1410
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

At that time, artists began to explore the possibilities of using the darkness of night and the brightness of the newborn Savior and of the angels announcement to the shepherds to add realism to their images of the Nativity.

Gentile da Fabriano, Nativity
Italian, 1423
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Fra Angelico, Nativity
Italian, 1440-1441
Florence, Convento di San Marco

from Fleur des histoires by Jean Mansel
French, c.1450-1475
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 56, fol. 14

Probably the supreme effect of these early attempts to show the effect of light piercing darkness is the Nativity painted by the Dutch artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans.  In this work the darkness is broken by two light sources:  the Child in the manger and the angel on the hillside beyond.  All the other figures in the scene are partially and realistically revealed by the light coming from these two sources.  Thus, in the stable, we see the angels, the ox and ass and Mary and Joseph themselves fitfully revealed by the mystic light shining from the True Light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5-9).  Similarly, in the background, the hillside and the dim figures of the shepherds are revealed by the light shining from the angelic messenger.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Nativity
Dutch, c.1490
London, National Gallery

From this point on many artists began to explore the effects of this mystical light on nighttime Nativity scenes.  They are frequently referred to by the title "The Holy Night"

Jean Bourdichon, Nativity
from Hours of Frédéric d'Aragon
French (Tours), 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheque naationale de France
MS Latin 10532, fol. 134

Jean Bourdichon, Nativity
from Grandes heures of Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 51v

Defendente Ferrari, Nativity
Italian, 1510
Turin, Museo Civico d'Arte Antica

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Nativity
German, 1515-1520
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie

Correggio, Nativity
Italian, 1528-1530
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie

Giorgio Vasari, Nativity
Italian, 1546
Rome, Borghese Gallery

Caravaggio, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence
Italian, 1609
Palermo, Formerly Oratorio di San Lorenzo

Gerrit van Honthorst, Nativity
Dutch, c.1620
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Guido Reni, Adoration of Shepherds
Italian, c.1640
London, National Gallery

Carlo Maratti, Nativity
Italian. 1650s
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie

Antonio Balestra, Adoration of the Shepherds
Italian, c.1707
Venice, Church of San Zaccaria

One of the most interesting parts of these paintings is the fact that they show the light emanating from the Christ Child and, in the background of some, the angel who is addressing the shepherds in the fields. Natural light may be present as well, from a lantern or candle, but it is the supernatural light that is the most powerful light source in these works.

And this brings us back to "Stille Nacht".  In English the third verse runs.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiance beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth

What these artists imagined is the radiance beaming from the tiny Son, love's pure light, .

James Tissot, Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
A Blessed Christmas!

© M. Duffy, 2016

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Joseph, Do Not Be Afraid!

Saint Joseph's Dream
from a Gospel Lectionary
Austrian (Salzburg), 1070-1090
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M780, fol. 1v
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home. 

Matthew 1:18-24
Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A                                                             

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (and for the Vigil Mass for Christmas) in the cycle of readings for Year A, the year of St. Matthew, is one of the most unusual passages in the New Testament.  In it we encounter Saint Joseph, not as a background figure, but as the major figure and the main actor.1  He experiences all the doubt (and shock and probably anger) of a man who finds that his fiancée has apparently been unfaithful and has become pregnant by someone else.  It’s easy enough to imagine his feelings.  But they are also tempered by the fact that he was unwilling to expose her (and himself) to the inevitable censure of public disclosure.  Today we would say that he was conflicted and in turmoil.   
Master of the Getty Epistles, Annunciation to Joseph
French (Tours), 1523-1540
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 452, fol. 38v

His doubts and fears are relieved when an angel appears to him in a dream to tell him that it is all right, it is not what he feared, but instead, something wonderful.  The idea of a revelation of reality through a dream harkens back to the other Joseph, in the Old Testament.  And like the earlier Joseph, Saint Joseph puts his trust in the message he receives in the dream and acts upon it.  He goes through with the marriage to Mary and becomes the foster father of Jesus, providing Him with support, protection and affection during His childhood to the end of his life.

Master of Death, The Annunciation to Saint Joseph
from Histoire de la Bible et de l'Assomption de Notre-Dame
French (Paris), 1390-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 526, fol. 28v
There are many images of Saint Joseph in western art.  We have already looked at a few of them here and here.  However, images of this particular moment in the Gospels have not been represented as often as some of the others.  The biggest problem is how to distinguish this dream of Saint Joseph from the slightly later incident in which an angel warns him in another dream to “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt” (Matthew 2:13).   

Annunciation to Joseph
From the Book of Pericopes of Saint Erentrud
Austrian (Salzburg), c. 1050
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 15903, Image 16

Annunciation to Joseph
from the Gospels of Matilda, Countess of Tuscany
Italian (Lombardy), 1075-1099
New York,Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 492, fol. 20r

There also seems to have been little art historical investigation of this particular iconographic subject. The examples that I have managed to identify begin in the 11th Century and right away one of the formulas by which the dream of reassurance can be identified begins to be used.  To make clear the sequence into which this particular dream fits a reference to the Annunciation must be introduced. 

The assumption appears to be that it is Gabriel who makes both apparitions, the first to the waking Mary, the second to the sleeping Joseph.  Very often the “official” title of the painting is “The Annunciation to Joseph”.  This not only links him to the Annunciation (to Mary), but also puts him into the line of other annunciations by angels to the fathers of remarkable men, such as the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25) and to Manoah, the father of Samson (Judges 13:2-25).2  Both of these earlier annunciations are scheduled as the readings of the Mass for the Advent weekday Mass of December 19th. 

Sometimes this referral appears as a visible allusion by showing the image of the Virgin Annunciate.  At other times there is a referral to the dove symbol of the Holy Spirit, at still others simply a referral to heaven with angels singing praise. 

Annunciation to Joseph
From the Trond Gospel Lectionary
Flemish (Liege), c. 1160-1185
Paris, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 883, fol. 2v

Scenes from the Life of the Virgin and St. Joseph
 from a Book of Hours
German (Franconia), 1204-1219
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 739, fol. 19v

Philippe de Champaigne, Dream of St. Joseph
French, 1642-1643
London, National Gallery

Carlo Maratti, Annunciation to St.  Joseph
Italian, 1652
Rome, Church of San Isidoro, Chapel of St. Joseph_

Francisco de Herrera el Mozo, Dream of St. Joseph
Spanish, c.1662
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Johann Hiebel, Annunciation to St. Joseph
German, 1727-1731
Litomerice (CZ), Jesuit Church of the Annunciation

Betrothal of the Virgin and the Annunciation to Joseph
from a Window
German, 1877-1878
Gelnhausen, Marienkirche

There is also at least one very unusual interpretation of this episode from the Gospels.  It can be titled “The Repentance of Saint Joseph” or "Joseph Asking Forgiveness from Mary".

It may make its first appearance as one of a series of illustrations in the book Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ from the second quarter of the fifteenth century in the Bibliotheque nationale de France.  The images follow the story from the Annunciation to Mary to Joseph's doubts, to his dream and to his repentance (with several additional scenes in between).  In the last image we see Joseph kneeling before Mary, acknowledging the presence of her Divine Child and his own acceptance of the situation.

Annunciation to Mary
from Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 167v

Joseph Doubting Mary
from Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 170

Annunciation to Joseph
from Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 171

Joseph Asking Forgiveness from Mary
from Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 171v

In a much later version of the same scene we also see Joseph kneeling at the feet of the visibly pregnant Mary, who stands, surrounded by angels, as she points to heaven, the ultimate true home of her baby.
Alessandro Tiarini, Repentance of St. Joseph
Italian, after 1620
Paris, Musée du Louvre

One later artist painted what might be called a prequel to the dream of Saint Joseph.  This was James Tissot, the later 19th Century artist who spent considerable time in the Holy Land, absorbing the details of contemporary life there and projecting back into what it might have been in the first century.  He imagined Joseph in his workshop, deep in troubled thought about what exactly to make of Mary's unexpected situation.

James Tissot, The Anxiety of Joseph
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

The angelic interruption of his dream relieved the anxiety and freed him to do what God was asking of him, to become the protector of Mary and Jesus during his infancy and growing years.

© M. Duffy, 2016


  1. See "St. Joseph, Spouse As Mousetrap"
  2. See Raymond Brown, SS.  The Birth of the Messiah:  A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, Garden City, NY, Doubleday and Company, 1977 and a commentary on Brown’s book, Edgar W. Conrad, “The Annunciation of Birth and the Birth of the Messiah”, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4 (October, 1985), pp. 656-663.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Saint Lucy of Syracuse – The Eyes Don’t Have It All!

Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint Lucy
Spanish, c.1625-1630
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art

When growing up and all the way through my life I have always understood that the defining attribute of St. Lucy was a pair of eyeballs on a dish.1 

This rather gruesome attribute is a reference to one of the aspects of her martyrdom.  So, in deciding to investigate her iconography in preparation for posting an essay on her feast day, I thought I had a fairly easy job in hand.  Turns out, I was not entirely right.  The plate of eyeballs is not her only attribute, the story of how they became her symbol may have a different twist and the reason why young Scandinavian girls go around on December 13th with a crown of candles on their heads (I could never figure the connection) has a good deal to do with St. Lucy after all.

Saint Lucy (properly Saint Lucia of Syracuse) is one of those early martyrs whose lives and deaths are so shrouded in later legends that it is hard to get back to the real person that probably lived and died so long ago.  

Like other saints I have explored recently, such as St. Margaret or St. Catherine of Alexandria, Lucy seems almost mythical.  However, she is not.

In fact, she is one of the saints listed among the early female martyrs in the Roman Canon of the Mass (or Eucharistic Prayer I, if you prefer), which can be traced back in its current form to the late sixth century.  This is the list that runs “Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia”.  It is reasonable to believe, therefore, that inclusion on this list is a pretty good guide to a person who really lived and suffered and who had been remembered by the Christian community for having done so, being recognized early as someone of particular significance.

Jean Bourdichon, Saint Lucy
from Hours of Frederic of Aragon
French (Tours), 1501-1504
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10532, fol. 382

According to tradition, Lucia was born in the Sicilian town of Syracuse, with its mixture of Roman and Greek, in the later years of the third century.  Her father’s family name must have been Lucius, as Roman women took the feminine form of their father’s family name as one of their two names.  

Her family may have been Christian, or she became a convert at an early age and, like many other young Christian women, decided on the counter-cultural embrace of chastity.  As with so many others, in a culture where women had little chance of autonomy until they became widows, coming under the domination of first their fathers, and then their husbands (who were often chosen for them by their fathers), this decision brought her trouble.

After Jacopo Bassano, Baptism of Saint Lucy by Saint Valentine
Italian, c.1600
Douai, Musée de la Chartreuse

In addition to wishing to remain unmarried, Lucy was determined to share her fortune (probably money intended as her dowry) with the poor, over opposition from her widowed mother.  Cleverly, Lucy persuaded her ailing mother to go on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Agatha in Catania, also in Sicily.  On visiting the tomb, Lucy had a dream in which Saint Agatha appeared to her and promised that her mother would be cured.  When she woke up, Lucy found that her mother had indeed been cured.  Taking advantage of her mother's gratitude for the miraculous healing, Lucy managed to persuade her mother to allow her to distribute her money to the poor. 

Anonymous, Saint Lucy and Her Mother at the Tomb of Saint Agatha
Italian, 1292
Melfi, Cappella di Santa Lucia

Richard de Montbaston, Saint Lucy at the Tomb of Saint Agatha
from Legenda aurea of Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), 1348
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 241, fol. 13v

Lorenzo Lotto, Saint Lucy at the Tomb of Saint Agatha
Italian, 1532
Iesi, Pinacoteca Civica
This picture tells the entire story of the visit of Lucy and her mother to the tomb of St. Agatha.  It reads from left to right.
At the far left, Lucy and her mother attend Mass at an altar near the tomb.  In the center of the picture, Lucy sleeps at the foot of the tomb, while her mother kneels in prayer.  The the right of this, Lucy and her mother argue.  And, at the far right the victorious Lucy distributes her fortune to the poor.

A young man who had been a suitor for Lucy’s hand in marriage heard about this distribution of wealth and, probably angry about being deprived of money he felt was really his, denounced her to the Roman governor of Sicily.  
Anonymous, Saint Lucy is Presented to the Governor
Italian, 1292
Melfi, Capella di Santa Lucia
This was at the time of the Diocletian persecution, the last one endured by the early Church (recognition by Constantine was only a few years away).  So, Lucy was summoned to appear before the governor and there to offer sacrifice to the gods.  
Lorenzo Lotto, Saint Lucy Before the Governor
from the Saint Lucy Altarpiece
Italian, 1532
Iesi, Pinacoteca Civica

This was typically how Christians were placed into the category of impious traitors, since one of the gods in question was usually the “divine” Emperor.  

This sacrifice was considered a civic duty and those who refused (with the official exception of the Jews) were considered to be traitors to the state.  People were regularly required to make a public sacrifice to the gods and were actually given an official certificate to show that they had done their duty.

Lucy refused to sacrifice.  As usual this refusal was met with savage reprisals.  A common part of the story of the female martyrs is an attempt to corrupt them by placing them in a brothel.  This was tried with Lucy, but the legendary part of her story says that, on her refusal she became extremely heavy and could not be moved.  A team of oxen were called in to help move her, but she remained immobile.

Master of the Legend of St. Lucy, Legend of Saint Lucy
Flemish, 1480
Bruges, Sint-Jacobskerk
This altarpiece presents several "moments" n the early phases of the martrydom of St. Lucy.  At the left she bids farewell to her mother, in the center she faces the Governor and at the right the oxen attempt to move her.
Other images present the various aspects of the story. First comes the story of the attempt to coerce her to the brothel by using a team of oxen to move her.

A Team of Oxen Attempt to Move Saint Lucy
from a Picture Bible
French (St. Omer, Abby of St. Bertin), c.1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 40

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, A Team of Oxen Attempt to Move Saint Lucy
 from Vies de saints
French (Paris), c. 1300-1325
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 183, fol. 108

Domenico Gargiulio, A Team of Oxen Attempt to Move Saint Lucy
Italian, c.1650
Beauvais, MUDO, Musée de l'Oise

Following this failure to move her other tortures were applied.   One of them was the removal of her eyes. This particularly gruesome torment is the one that became one of her attributes. However, I have not yet uncovered any images of this particular torture.  Perhaps it was simply too frightening for artists, who must rely on their eyes to obtain work.3

Then they attempted to set her on fire, but she didn't burn.   
Mahiet and Collaborators, Martyrdom of Saint Lucy
from Speculum historiale by Vincentius Bellavacensis
French (Paris), c.1334
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 5080, fol. 281
This illumination shows three moments in her martyrdom. At the left, the oxen try to move her, while on the right she is being simultaneously burned and killed with a spear thrust.

The Master of the Figdor Deposition, Martyrdom of Saint Lucy
Dutch, c 1505-1510
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
A great deal is going on in this painting.  At the top, in the distance we can see the episode in which the oxen try to move Lucy, while in the upper right a male saint is being beheaded.  In the upper part of the middle ground,, at the left, a bound Lucy is being brought to the brothel.  In the lower part of the middle ground, at the right, Lucy receives Communion in a kind of grotto, suggesting the sometimes clandestine nature of the Mass in her time.  In the center foreground, Lucy is being simultaneously burned and stabbed as officials and apparently sympathetic executioners look on.  

Eventually, she was killed by a sword or spear thrust.  
Martyrdom of Saint Lucy
from Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Belgian (Hainaut), c. 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 99v

Domenico Veneziano, Martyrdom of Saint Lucy
Italian, c.1445
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Jean le Tavernier and Follower, Martyrdom of Saint Lucy
from  Hours of Philip of Burgundy
Belgian (Oudenaarde), 1450
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS KB 76 F 2, fol. 278v

Peter Paul Rubens, Sketch of the Martyrdom of Saint Lucy
For the ceiling painting in the Jesuit Church at Antwerp
Flemish, c.1616-1620
Quimper, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Occasionally she is shown receiving Holy Communion either just before or during her execution.

Veronese, The Martyrdom and Last Communion of Saint Lucy
Italian, c.1582
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art

Govanni Battista Tiepolo, Last Communion of Saint Lucy
Italian, 1747-1748
Venice, Church of Santi Apostoli

Her memory was preserved and devotion to her spread far beyond Sicily, reaching Rome by the sixth century and the rest of the Christian world in ensuing years. 
Altichiero da Zavio, Funeral of Saint. Lucy
Italian, 1378-1384
Padua, Oratory of Saint George

Caravaggio, Burial of Saint Lucy
Italian, 1608
Syracuse (Sicily), Bellomo Museum

She appears in the famous mosaic procession of virgin martyrs that stretches down the nave of the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, built in 526.

Procession of Female Martyrs
Byzantine, 526
Ravenna, San Apollinare Nuovo
Saint Lucy is the figure second from the right.  At this early stage all the female martyrs look alike.  No one has any particular attribute.

Lucy is considered to be the patron saint of the blind and her feast day is celebrated on December 13.  She is a particular patron of her native Sicily and of a neighborhood in nearby Naples on the mainland of Italy, best known from the famous song “Santa Lucia”.

The name Lucia/Lucy derives from the Latin word “lux” (genitive case = lucis, etc.) which means “light” and by extension “sight”, which can help explain where the association with her two main attributes, a lamp and the disembodied eyes derive from.  In addition to the story told above about the putting out of her eyes as a torture, there is a story that Lucy did this herself to dissuade her suitor.  I think this second story is highly unlikely and that it is much more likely that her eyes were blinded, assuming that they were, as a form of torture. 

Consequently, Lucy can be identified in art by either holding a lamp or holding a plate or dish with her eyes.  This does not mean, of course, that images of Lucy as a saint show her as blind.   In her sanctified state, she is whole again.   

St. Lucy with a Lamp

Jacopo del Casentino and Assistant, Saint Lucy
Italian, c.1330
El Paso, Museum of Art

Andrea di Bartolo, Saint Lucy
Italian, c.1400
Oxford, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

Meister Arnt, Saint Lucy
Dutch, 1478
Venray, Church of St. Peter in Chains

Pietro Perugino, Saint Lucy
Italian, 1507
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saint Lucy with Her Eyes Attribute

Carlo Crivelli, Saint Lucy
Italian, 1430
Avignon, Musée du Petit Palais

Attributed to the Master of the Donato Commission, Saint Lucy
Leaves from an Book of Antiphons
Italian (Venice), c.1460-1470
London, British Library
MS Additional 22310, ff. 1-9, fol. 5v

Francesco del Cossa, Saint Lucy
Italian, c.1473-1474
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art

Carlo Crivelli, Saint Lucy
Italian, c.1476
London, National Gallery

Francisco de Zurbaran, Saint Lucy
Spanish, c.1640
Chartres, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Lucy in the Sacra Conversazione

In addition to scenes from her life and her martyrdom Lucy appears in the Sacra Conversazione type of painting and in paintings with groupings that either contributed to the genre or derived from it. 

Domenico Veneziano, Madonna and Child with Saints Francis, John the Baptist, Ambrose and Lucy
Italian, c.1445
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
In fact, it is a painting of a Sacra Conversazione by the Quattrocento artist Domenico Veneziano that includes Saint Lucy which is frequently presented to students to introduce them to the concept of this category of painting.  

Anonymous, Madonna and Child with Saint Lucy
Italian, 1292
Melfi, Cappella di Santa Lucia

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, Saints Lucy, Mary Magdalene and Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, c.1490
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Hans Memling, Madonna and Child in a Garden with Saints Catherine of Alexandria, Agnes, Cecilia, Lucy, Margaret of Antioch and an Unidentified Saint
German, c.1490
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Saints Peter, Catherine of Alexandria, Lucy and Jerome
The San Zaccaria Altarpiece
Italian, 1505
Venice, Church of San Zaccaria

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, Saints Roch, Anthony Abbott and Lucy
Italian, c.1513
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Workshop of Federico Barocci, Madonna and Child in Glory with Saints Anthony Abbot and Lucy
Italian, c.1500
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Alessandro Allori, Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Lucy
Italian, 1583
Cardiff, National Museum of Wales

Sometimes she appears with a one, two or a group of other saints, either from the wings of a now dispersed altarpiece, or as witnesses or participants in some heavenly event.

Master of St. Ildefonso, Imposition of the Chausable on Saint Ildefonso
Spanish, c.1475-1500
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Frankfurt Master, Saints Agnes and Lucy
Flemish, 1492
Frankfurt am Main, Historisches Museum

Goswijn van der Weyden, Saints Dymphna and Lucy
Flemish, 1503-1505
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Bartholomaeus Bruyn the Elder, Saints Bartholomew and Lucy
German, c.1530-1535
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum

Giacomo Triga, St. John the Baptist with Saints Gregory the Great, Mary Magdalene and Lucy
Italian, c.1720
Vetralla, Cathedral

In Scandinavia, in spite of the fact that the Scandinavian nations are overwhelmingly Protestant in orientation, memory of her is still a living thing.  Due to the far northern location of Scandinavia the December days approaching the winter solstice there are extremely short and dark.  It is in the first weeks of December that the time of sunset seems to pause (although the time of sunrise continues to get later and later, right up to the date of the solstice) and the turn of the year toward summer begins to be felt.  At this point, on the feast of Saint Lucy, all over Scandinavia (and in Scandinavian enclaves elsewhere), a girl is chosen to become the light bearer for her community in a ceremony that occurs nowhere else.

She is dressed in white, symbolic of virginity, wears a red sash, symbolic of martyrdom, and, most astonishingly, wears a crown of burning candles on her head, as the bearer of the light that will return with spring.  She processes through the local church (and also through various other public places), followed by other white-robed girls, also carrying candles, who sing traditional hymns and songs.

I’ve never actually seen one of these processions, but they look beautiful, if a wee bit frightening due to the lighted candles.  Households also have a similar ceremony, in which the girl serves traditional refreshments, including some that recall Saint Lucy’s eyes, to her family and guests.

Buns on a plate -- their shape and decoration are
a reminder of St. Lucy's symbol
Thus, a girl from the Mediterranean island of Sicily is still remembered and celebrated as far away as the Arctic Circle, demonstrating again the unity of Christian faith that once reigned in Europe prior to the Reformation.   Some may object that the Vikings probably had some similar ceremony prior to becoming Christians and this may be true.  However, the specific linking of such a ceremony with an early Christian saint from far away Sicily, suggests that, like other pre-existing customs that became incorporated into the Christian year, this was not only the sanctification of a powerful folk symbol but, in itself, a sign of Christian unity.   

A reminder of the old, Catholic, roots of the Scandinavian tradition.  Here is a photo of the entrance procession for a special Mass for the blind that takes place in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on the feast of St. Lucy, including a candle-crowned girl in honor of the patron saint of the blind.  

© M. Duffy, 2016

  1. Most information about Saint Lucy and the history of the Roman Canon are derived from 1913 edition of  The Catholic Encyclopedia, which can be found online at  Although over 100 years old the information contained in most entries is still very useful and it is still the “go to” reference point for much material.
  2. For information on how the Roman authorities viewed Christianity and the measures they used against it see Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians As the Romans Saw Them, Second Edition, New  York and New Haven, Yale University Press, 2003
  3. I would like to point out here that, contrary to myth, not all medieval manuscript illumination was done by monks.  Some manuscripts certainly were illuminated in monastery scriptoria, especially in the early parts of the Middle Ages.  Even then, however, the painters were talented professionals, certainly not your average monk and the best ones were cultivated by their monasteries, much as several hundred years later, Fra Angelico was encouraged in his art by his Dominican superiors.  But as time went on the monastery scriptoria could never have hoped to meet the demand for illustrated books and professional artists took over.  Therefore, the luxury manuscripts that appear toward the end of the Middle Ages are nearly all illuminated by professional lay painters, working for booksellers or the earliest form of "publishers".  They employed professional scribes to copy the texts and professional artists to paint the images that illustrated them.  Entire families were often involved in the craft, as for instance the team of Richard de Montbaston and his wife, Jeanne.  Sometimes the very same artists who painted full-scale altarpieces also did the delicate illuminations in luxury books.  One such is the painter Zanobi Strozzi, a pupil of Fra Angelico, who painted both book illustrations and panel paintings.  There was also a trade in lower priced books, with illustrations by less talented or less experienced artists.