December 13 is the saint day of Santa Lucia, a Christian martyr celebrated around the world, especially in Sweden. The Swedish festival of Santa Lucia is celebrated with a procession of girls with candles on their heads and by eating sweet rolls. But did you know that she wasn’t Swedish? Did you know she was from Sicily? Can you recognize her in paintings? I’m guessing probably not.
In my travels and education as a tour guide over the past 20 years, I’ve been immersed in art, history and architecture, much of it religious since I spend the majority of my time in Italy. Despite being raised a Catholic and considering myself reasonably educated, I’m stunned by how much I don’t understand. There are so many symbols that I’m certain I’ve missed. I’ve put my mind to learning more about the background and educating my eye, so that the art can become more meaningful to me on museum and church visits.
I thought it would be fun to share some of the stories I’ve heard over the years about the lives of saints and how to identify them in paintings. So, from time to time, I’ll write a bit here about saints and symbols in art. Maybe the next time you travel you can take some of these ideas with you and educate your eyes to see art differently.
As with many Christian martyrs, the story of Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, is a little hazy. There are many different accounts, each of them with slightly different details. Her story goes something like this…Lucia was born in 283 AD in Syracuse, a city on the eastern side of the island of Sicily. Syracuse had been the most important city of the island during the time of the Greeks, but by the 3rd century AD, its importance had waned and it had become part of Roman dominated Sicily.
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The Roman Emperor of the time was Diocletian, an interesting character himself, who had divided the empire into four zones and ruled with three others whom he had appointed, otherwise know as the Four Tetrarchs. Not to be confused with the Three Tenors, the Tetrarchs were equally international and important but probably didn’t sing as well.
Diocletian came to power in an empire that was really on its last legs, an empire that had been growing for over 300 years to an almost unmanageable size. The restructuring of the role of emperor was part of a larger scheme to shore up the empire and avoid a total collapse. One of the many problems of the empire in the third century was the conflict between the old religion of gods and goddesses and the many emerging new religions, of which Christianity was only one. Diocletian was very strict in his religious practices and a defender of the old ways, so as a part of reforming the empire, he decided to begin the persecution of new religions, to bring people back to the old ways.
I tell you a bit about this because this is the reason for the large number of saints that date from this time, around the year 300. As the persecution and torture of those practicing the new religions increased, so did the concept of martyrdom. Diocletian, by the way, was one of the only emperors to live long enough to retire. Wearied of Imperial politics, he quit his job and went home to Dalmatia to grow cabbages. True story.
Back to the story of poor Lucia. She was a Christian practicing her religion in a time when Christianity was reaching a critical mass. It was becoming so common that, even if it was technically illegal and actively persecuted in the empire, the enforcement of the law against it was lax in provincial areas. Lucia was from a wealthy family and had been promised in marriage by her parents to a non-Christian suitor. It seems that she was not thrilled about this marriage arrangement, preferring to focus on her religion instead.
Her mother was ill, a terminal disease of some kind, and Lucia decided to take her mother to visit the tomb of the most famous local saint, St. Agatha of Catania. On the visit to the tomb, her mother was miraculously healed and Lucia had a vision of some kind, although the stories conflict about what she saw. After the healing of her mother, she convinced her mom to let her off the hook as far as the marriage was concerned and then proceeded to give away her dowry to the poor. This did not go over well with her fiancé, who then alerted the authorities about her illegal faith.
Lucia was sentenced to a brothel for her crimes. Oy. Kind of makes you glad to be alive in this day and age. She refused to go, of course, and it seems that God agreed because she would not be moved. Literally. They could not move her body, not by pushing or pulling, not even when she was harnessed to a team of oxen. A miracle. They decided then to burn her at the stake, but the wood refused to light. Another miracle. Unfortunately, miracles don’t always come in threes and they killed her by stabbing her in the throat.
Santa Lucia is represented in art as a beautiful, often blonde woman (unlikely since she was probably Greek) usually carrying a plate or chalice with eyeballs in it. The eyeball part of the story is unclear. Some accounts say that the soldiers stabbed out her eyes during her murder, but the more popular story is stranger. It is said that her beauty had bewitched a local boy who became crazed with how lovely her eyes were. So to put him out of his misery, and probably to get a little peace from his overtures, she ripped her eyes out of her head and sent them to him. Yikes. I guess that’s one way to ward off the unwanted advances of an Italian man.
Whatever happened to her eyes, she did not have eyeballs when she died. After her death the eyeballs reappeared and her face was restored to its original beauty, a third miracle, which is what it takes to become a saint. Her association with eyes has made her the patron saint of eye problems, so say a prayer and think of Santa Lucia the next time you go to the optometrist.
Where she went after her death is up for some debate. She stayed buried in Sicily for at least 400 years, but was then taken when the island was invaded. Eventually, in the Middle Ages the bones made their way to Constantinople, the biggest power of the time and center of the Christian world. The Venetians, a child state of Constantinople, sacked the city in 1204 (which is another very long story I’ll have to tell you some day) and stole all of its most important treasures, including the body of Santa Lucia. Most people will say her body is now there in Venice, although it’s likely that parts of it were “borrowed” over time, and several churches in other parts of Europe claim to have some of the real bones. Who knows.
If you go to Venice, you will sail right by her resting place if you take the vaporetto city bus down the Grand Canal. There is a giant inscription on the wall of the church of San Geremia facing the canal, reminding you that the saint remains in Venice. Her original shrine is no longer there, it was demolished to make way for the main train station, which is why that station is called “Venezia Santa Lucia”. The singers in the gondolas in Venice love to sing “Santa Lucia”, the famous song, while floating down the Grand Canal but it makes no sense in reality. The song isn’t Venetian, it’s Neapolitan and has no relation to the saint but instead a district of Naples. Sorry to disappoint, but you should know right now that Italy is confusing.
Now that you know her story, you have the tools to find her in art. We don’t know what she really looked like, of course, and most artists would find it a little awkward to have to put name tags on the characters in their paintings. They use symbols instead, it’s a little more elegant. Usually the symbols have something to do with how the saint died. In the case of Santa Lucia, she is usually represented holding her eyeballs and the sword that stabbed her in the neck.
The question you may wonder at this point is why she is more commonly known in a Nordic context. She has nothing to do with Sweden. Honestly, I’ve read lots of different accounts of this and none of them make much sense to me and they all seem to conflict. What I can say for sure is that Lucia means “bearer of light” in Latin. The solstice may have taken place on December 13 in the past, and the northern countries have always celebrated the shortest day of the year with a festival of lights.
Some say that the Swedish tradition of girls wearing a white gown and wreath on their heads with candles in it is imitating Santa Lucia delivering food to Christians hiding in the Catacombs during the persecutions. This doesn’t make much sense from a historical perspective. It’s more likely a mix of pagan traditions masquerading under the veil of Christianity. That’s something that’s a lot more common than you might think…consider that idea when you put Christmas presents under your Christmas tree.
I kind of like the weird mix of sacred and profane in Catholic traditions, but I especially like celebrating light. I live in darkest Washington, a place with little sun, so I think celebrating a festival of lights is great no matter what the backstory is. On this Santa Lucia Day you can be sure I’ll give a nod to the Swedish celebrations by eating sweet rolls and lighting candles in my home while sitting on my IKEA recliner. And as a nod to the real Santa Lucia, I’ll spend a moment being thankful for good eyesight.