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 cut (image). 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 (image).

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

PORTRAITS

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.

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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.)

MORE IMAGES

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Undated: A statue in the crypt of St. Domnius Cathedral, Split, Croatia.

DATES

  • Feast day: December 13

BIOGRAPHY

RECOMMENDED

NOTES

1 Wisch, 104, 106-109. Hahn, 77.

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

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