By Anne Leader
13 December is the Feast of St. Lucy, or Lucia, of Syracuse. She is the patron saint of blindness and other diseases of the eyes because of her brutal torture prior to her death – her eyes were gouged out – and she is typically shown holding her own eyes, often on a platter. An early Christian martyr, Lucy died in 304 during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian in her native Sicily and was widely venerated throughout the church by the sixth century.
Typical of saints’ biographies, Lucy was born to wealthy parents of Roman and Greek origins. She promised herself to remain chaste in honor of God and wanted to give her worldly possessions to the poor. Lucy was a devotee of St. Agatha, another early Christian martyr who had been executed half a century before. Lucy made a pilgrimage with her mother Euytichia, to visit Agatha’s relics and to pray for healing for her mother, who had suffered from hemorrhages for years. According to legend, Agatha appeared to Lucy in a dream, telling her that it was her faith that would lead to her mother’s cure and her own fame.
Also typical of early Christian hagiography, the Roman Governor of Syracuse, Paschasius, ordered Lucy to burn a sacrifice to the emperor’s image; her refusal led him to sentence her to imprisonment in a brothel. The guards, however, were unable to move her, even when tied to a team of oxen. Thus they created a funeral pyre around her, but her body refused to burn. She only succumbed to death when attacked by a sword. It is only in accounts written in the fifteenth century that we hear of Lucy’s torture by eye-piercing, ordered by Paschasius out of fury upon hearing Lucy prophesy his own demise. Other accounts suggest that she took out her own eyes rather than be admired by a suitor. Upon her burial, her eyes were miraculously restored.
Giovanni della Robbia, St. Lucy, 1523, glazed terracotta, Certosa del Galluzzo, Florence
Francesco del Cosa, St. Lucy from the Griffoni Polyptych, 1473, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Domenico Beccafumi, St. Lucy, 1521, oil on panel, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena
Jacobello del Fiore, St. Lucy at the tomb of Saint Agatha, 1410, Museo Civico, Fermo
Lorenzo Lotto, St. Lucy Altarpiece (central panel showing St. Lucy Seized and predella showing St Lucy before Paschasius and St Lucy Harnessed to Oxen), 1532, oil on panel,originally for Confraternity of St. Lucy, Iesi, now Pinacoteca Civica, Iesi
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Last Communion of St. Lucy, 1747-48, oil on canvas, Santi Apostoli, Venice
Paolo Veronese, The Martyrdom and Last Communion of St. Lucy, c. 1582, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Altichiero, The Funeral of St. Lucy, 1378-84, fresco, Oratorio di San Giorgio, Padua
Caravaggio, Burial of Saint Lucy, 1608, oil on canvas, Santa Lucia alla Badia, Siracusa