St. Lucy, Virgin and Martyr, Pray For Us!
The Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution was brief but intense. St. Lucy was one of its victims.
“Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all your saints …”
Lucy or Lucia is one of the seven women martyrs mentioned by name in the Roman Canon, the First Eucharistic Prayer. She and her connection with Agatha, who immediately precedes her in that list, is the subject of our painting.
Lucy died at about age 21. She lived from around 283-304, making her a contemporary of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who reigned from 284-305 and is very relevant to her life.
Diocletian unleashed the last major persecution of Christianity under the Roman Empire, before Constantine’s Edict of Milan of 313 legalized the faith. Diocletian’s persecution was brief — perhaps three years — but very intense. St. Lucy was one of its victims.
There are lots of legends surrounding Lucy, but one basic fact: the man who wanted to marry Lucy, who had consecrated herself to virginity, denounced her to the Roman governor, and she was martyred by sword in Sicily. She received Holy Communion (Viaticum) just before she died. The rest of the traditions associated with her include:
- When brought before the Roman Governor, he immediately ordered her placed in a Roman brothel. She refused, and tradition has it the soldiers could not move her. Virginity was a sure sign of being a Christian, a practice deemed “sick” and “repressed” in the Graeco-Roman world. (Sound familiar?) Then, as now, brooking Caesar’s sexual mores gets you into trouble.
- To make herself less attractive in any brothel, Lucy disfigured herself, gouging out her eyes. Another tradition holds that gouging her eyes out was among the ways Lucy was tortured. A pair of eyes on a plate are among the symbols of St. Lucy in Christian art, and that is why she is also regarded as a patroness of those with afflictions of the eye.
- She is said to have prophesied, at her sentencing to death, that Diocletian’s reign would soon be over. The next year, it was.
- It is said that the young Lucy, who came from an affluent home but had already committed herself to virginity, wanted to convince her mother, Eutychia, to give away the money she had set aside as Lucy’s dowry. Mother and daughter made a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Agatha, another Sicilian virgin martyr who died in the mid-third century during the persecution of Decius. Cured of a long-term hemorrhage (cf. Luke 8:43-48), Eutychia followed her daughter in giving to the poor. Eutychia had initially still hesitated, hoping to put the donation off, but Lucy is said to have reminded her that postmortem bequests do not show the same generosity of spirit since, in the end, you can’t take it with you, anyway, and therefore sacrifice nothing of its loss.
Today’s painting, by Jacobello del Fiore (c. 1370-1439), is entitled “Eutychia and Lucy at the Tomb of St. Agatha.” Del Fiore came from Venice, where Western and Eastern Byzantine traditions intermingled. This late Gothic painting, characteristic of that style (limited elements focused on the main theological point of the work, relatively flat, suggesting an entry to the heavenly realms by the golden background), depicts mother and daughter praying at St. Agatha’s tomb. Lucy’s affluence is noted by her gold dress, her holiness already by a halo. Eutychia’s pose is one of petition; Lucy’s, more of contemplation. St. Agatha is depicted as reaching out to touch and bless her young devotee, who already followed her in virginity and would soon follow her in death at the hands of an overweening state.
The work is one of eight scenes from the Life of St. Lucy, for which del Fiore received a commission from a church in Fermo, also show her giving her property to the poor; refusing to worship idols at the governor’s command; resisting the pull of oxen attempting to take her to a whorehouse; being burned at the stake; being pierced in the throat by a sword; receiving Viaticum; and her entombment.
“Lucy” or “Lucia” is etymologically related to “light,” and she brought the light of her faith to bear against her persecutors. It is also why, on this day, there is a tradition in Sweden of the daughter of a family rising early and, dressed in white to symbolize the virgin Lucy and wearing a crown of blazing candles, brings breakfast (usually buns or cookies) to her parents and other household members. Remember that we are among the shortest days of the year, and mornings in Scandinavia are dark. (I can attest by personal experience — I landed once in Helsinki, Finland, on Dec. 23 at 9 a.m. Dawn was just breaking.) The light of “Lucia” is a welcome sight in the dark of night.
A cultural note: the popular Italian song, “Santa Lucia,” is not directly about the saint but about the waterfront area of Naples called “Santa Lucia.” The neighborhood, however, got its name from the Minor Basilica of Saint Lucy, Virgin and Martyr, located there.
- St. Lucy