Saint Lucy, Virgin and Martyr

Apart from her being martyred at Syracuse in 304 AD during the persecution of Diocletian, there is very little certain known about Lucy. However, her cult began quite soon after her death and spread widely. An inscription dating from about the year 400 is to be found in Syracuse. Her name appears in the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite, also in the Ambrosian rites, as well as in the oldest Roman liturgical texts, in Greek liturgical books, and in the marble calendar of Naples. Churches dedicated to her can be found in Rome, Naples and in Venice. A church near the railway station in Venice claims to have a partially incorrupt relic of her body.

According to her Acts (which have little historical value) Lucy, a Christian, was a wealthy Sicilian during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. She consecrated her virginity to God, turned down proposals of marriage to a pagan, gave away her dowry to the poor. She was betrayed as a Christian by the man who wanted to marry her to the governor of Syracuse. A judge ordered that she should be sexually violated in a brothel, but miraculously she could not be moved from where she was. He then tried – unsuccessfully – to have her burnt, and she was finally executed by the sword. In medieval accounts, her eyes were gouged out prior to her execution.

Artistic representations reflect the stories in these Acts. Her eyes sometimes appear on a plate that she is holding. The earliest known image of her (showing no symbols) is in a frieze of virgins in the 6th century mosaics in the church of St Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.

Until 1861, Lucy’s remains were housed in a church named after her in Venice. When this church was demolished, they were moved to the church of San Geremia, where they can still be seen.

In Scandinavia her feast, held on what was the shortest day of the year in the old calendar, has become a festival of light. The youngest daughter in the family, dressed in white, wakes the rest of the family with coffee, rolls and a special song.

In Sicily, and in many other places, the song ‘Santa Lucia’ remains enduringly popular. Lucy’s name (from the Latin word lux, meaning ‘light’) also played a large part in her being named as a patron saint of the blind and those with eye trouble.

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