Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Relics of St Lucy

The written accounts of the virgin martyr St Lucy, whose feast has been kept on this day since at least the sixth century, are universally recognized to be historically unreliable, in no small part because of the very notable inconsistencies between the different versions. For example, the Roman breviary makes no mention of the well-known story that she was blinded during her sufferings, and for the sake of which she is often depicted holding her eyes on a plate. This is also missing from the version of her life in the pre-Tridentine Roman breviary. But one of the few details about her which is consistently stated is that she was from the port city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily, where she was martyred during the persecution of the emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century.

St Lucy and Stories of Her Life, by Quirizio da Murano, active in Venice 1463-78. Notice that there is no reference to the Saint’s blinding. (The artist’s native place, Murano, is a small town which was in his lifetime in the terraferma, the mainland territories controlled by the Venetian Republic. - Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)    
During the Arabic occupation of Sicily, which began in 827, the people of Syracuse had hidden her relics in a catacomb near the city, but in 1039, the location of the hiding place was betrayed to a Byzantine general who was on the island to fight against the Arabs, Georgios Maniaces, and who stole them and brought them to Constantinople. (He also took the relics of St Agatha, the patron of Catania, about 40 miles to the north, but she was stolen back and returned there in 1126.) When Constantinople was sacked by the Venetians in 1204, Lucy’s relics were brought back to Venice along with an immense number of other treasures. They were originally placed in one of the city’s most important churches, dedicated to St George, on a small island which faces the famous Piazza San Marco.

The church of St Lucy in Venice, photographed shortly before its demolition. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
In 1279, however, a large number of pilgrims were killed when a bridge of boats made to link the island to the rest of the city for her feast day was overturned by choppy seas. It was then decided to build a new church to house them within the city. In 1860, when Venice had been part of the Austrian empire for several decades, the Austrian government decided to build a train station in the area, and the church was slated for demolition. Lucy’s relics were therefore transferred to a nearby church dedicated to the prophet Jeremiah, where they still remain. (The station itself was later demolished and replaced by a much uglier building, but the new structure is still called “Venezia Santa Lucia” in memory of the location of the old church.) In 1981, the relics were stolen from the crystal urn in which they rest, but recovered 5 weeks later, on her very feast day. More recently, they have been brought to Syracuse for a visit twice, in 2004, for the seventeenth centenary of her martyrdom, and again ten years later.
The shrine of St Lucy in the church of San Geremia. A silver mask was placed on her face in 1955, a gift of the patriarch of Venice Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope St John XXIII. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Didier Descouens, CC BY-SA 4.0.)
Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0
San Geremia, seen from the Gran Canal. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Jean-Pol Grandmont, CC BY 4.0)

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