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

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.

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

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 a 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 simulaneously 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 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/  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.  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.

1 comment:

Beate said...

Thank you for this blog!
I just followed a course on Caravaggio's religious paintings, and on St Lucy's we read the golden legend where the removal of eyes were not related to torture, but due to her own will as they tempted her young friar. Best, Beate