Wednesday, December 13, 2017

St Lucy - A Saint of the Roman Canon and Caravaggio's Greatest Painting

St Lucy is a Saint of the 3rd century, a virgin martyr who was venerated from the moment of her death and whose feast is celebrated on December 13th in both East and West. An account of her life can be found here.

As with all worthy images intended for use in worship, we see in this portrayal of her by the great 18th century Venetian Tiepolo an account of her story and the characteristics that identify her uniquely. She is shown receiving her final Holy Communion; the instrument of her impending death, the dagger by which she was stabbed in the throat, is placed at the bottom right of the composition, along with her eyes on a plate. This latter symbol is the one most commonly associated with her, although it developed relatively late in the Middle Ages, linked to her name, which is derived from the Latin word for light. (Tiepolo, incidentally is the painter of what in my estimation is the best Immaculate Conception ever painted!)

Other attributes we will see are a palm branch - which is appropriate to all martyrs - as seen in this famous Renaissance period painting by Francesco della Cossa, ca. 1473.
During her passion, the consul Paschasius ordered that she be removed to a brothel and abused until she died. However, teams of men tried but failed to move her. We see this in the painting below in this 15th-century depiction, in which teams of oxen are being used. This is referred to in the Magnificat antiphon for her Second Vespers: “With such great weight did the Holy Spirit set her, that the Virgin of Christ remained unmoved.” (Master of the St Lucy Legend, 1480. Click to enlarge.)
A tradition iconographic image has the saint holding a cross as a sign of martyrdom as in the beautiful fresco.
I finish with Caravaggio and his Burial of St Lucy. This is a late painting done when he was in exile, so to speak, from Rome and living in Sicily, the home of St Lucy. It is an altarpiece, and in my opinion, one of his most brilliant paintings. I do not know if the stylistic development is by accident or design, but regardless, I like the result, which reflects the developing baroque style better than his early work. It is shrouded in more mystery, with disappearing edges, far more numinous monochrome rendering and less colouration than he might have painted in his youth. The composition is brilliant; the arcs formed by the limbs of the two figures in the foreground create a mandorla, which frames the figure of St Lucy. The only bright color is the red robe of a bystander that vertically bisects the mandorla shape, striking to the heart of the martyr.
This is one of a series of articles written to highlight the great feasts and the saints of the Roman Canon. All are connected to a single opening essay, in which I set out principles by which we might create a canon of art for Roman Rite churches, and a schema that would guide the placement of such images in a church. (Read it here.) In these, I plan to cover the key elements of images of the Saints of the Roman Canon - Eucharistic Prayer I - and the major feasts of the year. I have created the tag Canon of Art for Roman Rite to group these together, should any be interested in seeing these articles as they accumulate. For the fullest presentation of the principles of sacred art for the liturgy, take the Master’s of Sacred Arts, www.Pontifex.University.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: