Saint Lucy: The Iconography

In Syracuse, Sicily, the natal day Not her birthday but the day she died and was "born again" into Heaven of St. Lucy, Virgin and Martyr, during the persecution of Diocletian. On the orders of the Consul Paschasius this noble virgin was given over to procurers so that the people could make light of her chastity. But when they tried to lead her away they could not move her at all, neither by pulling her themselves with ropes nor by using multiple teams of oxen. She overcame the torment of burning oil, resin, and pitch and finally attained martyrdom when she was stabbed in the throat. – Roman Martyrology for December 13

Narrative images of St. Lucy follow the accounts summarized in the Golden Legend. Lucy's mother is cured of a flow of blood by the intercession of St. Agatha. This leads her and Lucy to start giving their wealth to the poor (image). Her erstwhile fiancé then reports her to the judge Paschasius, who orders her taken to a brothel. But the Holy Spirit makes her immovable (image), so Paschasius tries fire, also unsuccessfully (image). Finally he has her throat pierced by a sword. (image). But before he can learn whether this will succeed he is arrested by the Emperor's emissaries. Mortally wounded, St. Lucy manages to preach to the crowd and take communion before dying (image).

An oleograph from the 19th century pictures the entire narrative in twelve scenes arranged around an image of the saint.


Originally St. Lucy's attribute was a flaming lamp, as in the first picture at right. The lamp referenced both her name (which means "light") and literary works that associated her with the "wise virgins" who kept their lamps ready for the bridegroom in Matthew 25:1-13. Some images also added a knife or sword as an attribute supplemental to the lamp (example).

But by at least the 12th century St. Lucy came to be invoked for diseases of the eye, and her most common attribute became a pair of eyes placed on a golden plate (as in the second picture at right) or held delicately between her fingers (example).1 There is nothing about eyes or eyesight in the early accounts of Lucy's passion, or even as late as Bokenham's 14th century Legend of Holy Woman. But according to Cassell (74) a "later accretion of her legend" said she plucked out her own eyes because so many young men had been attracted to her by their beauty.

A dressed santo of St. Lucy in Galicia has black hair, but in all the other portraits I have examined she is a young blonde. Her own eyes are always intact, despite a literary tradition that started to appear at the end of the 15th century claiming the saint had gouged out her eyes in order to be undesirable to young men who had admired them. That tradition drew credibility from the eyes-on-a-plate attribute and also from Jesus' admonition, "if thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee" (Matthew 5:29).2

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.


From 1330, Jacopo del Casentino's portrait of St. Lucy with her original attribute, a flaming lamp. In many portraits the lamp is shaped like this one. (See the description page.)

The eyes on the golden plate: detail from Carlo Crivelli's Saints Anthony and Lucy, circa 1470. (See the description page.)


  • Flaming lamp
  • Eyes on a plate or in her hand


  • 12th century: In "Icon and Narrative" Cynthia Hahn analyzes the images in a small book comprising texts and images of Lucy and her passion.
  • 16th century: In Anthony of Padua's fresco, Saints Paul and Lucy St. Lucy holds a book and a golden plate with the eyes.
  • 16th century: In Zaganelli's portrait St. Lucy holds the eyes between her fingers.
  • 1505: Perugino's painting retains the older iconography of the flaming lamp.
  • 1526: Antonello Gagini's statue of St. Lucy holding the chalice of fire, with a narrative frieze along the base.
  • 1536: In one of Bassano's Madonna paintings St. Lucy offers her palm branch to the Christ Child while a namesake, little Lucia Soranzo, plays with her dog.
  • Late 16th or early 17th century: St. Lucy takes a dramatic stance in Palma il Giovane's St. Nicholas altarpiece.
  • 18th century: Gaspare Serenario, The Last Communion of St. Lucy.
  • 1747-48: Tiepolo's painting of St. Lucy's last communion in a contemporary setting.
  • Undated: A portrait of St. Lucy in Barcelona with a palm branch and the pair of eyes on a plate.
  • Undated: A statue in the crypt of St. Domnius Cathedral, Split, Croatia.
  • Undated: A fresco of St. Lucy with Saints Veronica and Apollonia.


  • Feast day: December 13




1 Wisch, 104, 106-109. Hahn, 77. Cassell, 79-80.

2 Wisch, 117-19. Butler IV, 549. Duchet-Suchaux, 220. Molanus, 395, attributes the story of the gouged eyes to "Gothic" popular piety.