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
so Paschasius tries fire, also unsuccessfully
Finally he has her throat cut
But before he can learn whether this will succeed he is arrested by the Emperor's emissaries. St. Lucy is then able to take communion before dying from her wound
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, from 1330. The lamp referenced both her name (which means "light") and literary works that associated her with the "wise virgins" of Matthew 25, who kept their lamps ready for the bridegroom. Some images also added a knife or sword as an attribute supplemental to the lamp (example). But in the 14th century Lucy came to be credited with restoration of sight for the blind, so by the 15th many images used a pair of disembodied eyes as her attribute instead of a lamp. These she usually held on a golden plate (example), or delicately between her fingers (example). The eyes did not entirely displace the lamp, but they came to be by far the most common attribute in St. Lucy's portraits.1
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. Revised 2020-03-31.