Friday, December 13, 2019

The Feast of St Lucy

Truly is is fitting and just, right and profitable to salvation, that we should give Thee thanks always and everywhere, o Lord, Holy Father, almighty and eternal God; Who by Thy grace gave to the Blessed Lucy in the contest of her martyrdom the strength of unconquerable faith, by which she defied and steadfastly overcame the pains of fire and sword, and happily triumphed over the savagery of the tyrant Paschasius. O God, how wondrous and incomprehensible is Thy might! Who made her, though still but a girl, of the fragile sex, victorious in her tortures, and when she had entered the door of the heavenly kingdom, crowned her with a double crown for the double victory of her virginity and martyrdom. Through Christ our Lord. Through whom the Angels praise, the Archangels venerate, the Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Principalities, Powers adore Thy majesty, whom also the Cherubim and Seraphim, praise with voices united; among whom we beseech that Thou also command our voices to be admitted, saying with humble confession. Holy... (The Ambrosian Preface for the feast of St Lucy.)

St Lucy before the Prefect Paschasius, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1532
Vere quia dignum et justum est ... Qui Beátae Luciae, in sui agóne martyrii, inexpugnábilis fidei fortitúdinem tua gratia praestitisti: per quam contemptas incendii, et gladii poenas constanter súperans, de Paschasii tyranni saevitia felíciter triumphavit. O mira, et incomprehensíbilis tua, Domine, potentia! qui ipsam adhuc juvénculam, in sexu frágili, victrícem in suppliciis reddidisti: et ingressam regni caelestis jánuam, pro gémina virginitátis et martyrii victoria, dúplici lauréola coronasti. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum. Per quem...

Several of the words and expressions in this Preface (“contest”, “unconquerable”, “steadfastly overcame”, etc.) come from a very ancient tradition by which the Christians adopted the language of gladiatorial combats to the trials and sufferings of their martyrs. In the case of St Lucy, however, they also refer to a specific episode of her legend: when she had spoken of the virtue of chastity to Paschasius, the prefect of her native city of Syracuse, he ordered her to be dragged her off to a brothel. However, the men charged with bringing her there found it absolutely impossible to move her, an episode which is twice commemorated in the proper texts of her Office. The antiphon of the Benedictus reads “Thou art an immovable column, o Lucy, bride of Christ: for all the people await thee, that Thou may receive the crown of life, alleluja.” That of the Magnificat at Second Vespers reads “With such great weight did the Holy Spirit fix her fast that the Virgin of Christ remained unmovable.” Inspired by these texts, Lotto makes her the brightest figure in the painting, and shows her standing perfectly upright, while the figures around her are bent in one direction or another in the struggle to move her.

In the panel below, the work of an anonymous Flemish painter from Bruges known as the Master of the St Lucy Legend (active ca. 1480-1510), the Saint is shown on the left with her mother, whom she had taken to the shrine of St Agatha to heal her from an issue of blood. In the center, she is tried before Paschasius; on the right, she remains completely unmovable, even when oxen are tied to her in an attempt to drag her away. (The work has also been attributed to painter from Bruges called François vanden Pitte, but this attribution does not seem to be accepted universally. It is still displayed there in the church of St James.)

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