December 7th 2019

“Burial of St Lucy” 1608, Caravaggio, Chiesa de Santa Lucia alla Badia, Syracuse. The two grave diggers, the soldier and the mitred bishop are far larger than the central group of mourners.  With this deliberate distortion,  they both frame and isolate that very moment just after the death of St Lucy,  which was also her birth into the life of heaven. The presence of the Bishop tells us that Caravaggio follows the account of her death given in The Golden Legend, which relates that just before she died she received communion as viaticum.  The strong diagonal which slopes down from the right towards the prone corpse of the saint,  and the intense expressions of  grief,  recall Giotto’s famous “Lamentation of Christ”.  The standing figures of the young man draped in red and the cloaked woman at his side, recall Our Lady and St John, who stood at the foot of the cross.  This identification of St Lucy with Christ is completed  by  her arm stretched out towards the viewer as if in supplication. Her palm of martyrdom is no longer clearly visible. What we see is is her vulnerability, not her victory. The work was painted this shortly after Caravaggio had arrived in Syracuse in the October of 1608. He was on the run, wanted both in Rome and now also wanted by the Knights of Malta. The commission gave him a degree of protection, but it is recorded that while in the city he slept fully clothed and with a sword by his bed.  Perhaps he identified with St Lucy’s vulnerability. The small face, directly behind the raised hand of the Bishop and looking towards the light, may be a self-portrait. According to The Golden Legend, St Lucy had been denounced as a Christian by her spurned suitor. The Roman Consul ordered that she be thrown into a brothel but, when not even a team of oxen could move her, she was subjected to a series of appalling ordeals: blazing flame, boiling oil and even being doused in urine.  The Consul thought urine could dispel her evident powers of sorcery.  But her suffering continued until for the Consul’s sake, someone thrust a sword into her throat. Then she died, but not before receiving communion. Caravaggio casts the “priests” of The Golden Legend as a bishop, and puts him in the company of a military man.  Both mitre and armour are highlighted to acknowledge the city’s senate as the patrons and perhaps to suggest that the Bishop of Syracuse was involved in the commission. The huge stature of both distances them from the central event, as if they are recalling something from ages past.  The cult of St Lucy spread far and wide, as did her relics.  Now, they are mostly in Venice. In the Syracuse of 1608,  reviving her cult as patron was seen as a way to renew the fortunes of the city.  In other places, St Lucy is associated with light and sight because other later legends say that her eyes were gouged out and then miraculously healed during her ordeal. But first and foremost Lucy is a Christian martyr, which is to say that in the tradition of the Church her death is associated with that of Christ.  In fact, Lucy became a victim of abuse because she would not renounce her faith.  This simple part of her story is often overlooked.  Caravaggio clearly identifies her with Christ, or rather, evokes the sinless victim upon the cross, who identified himself with her innocence, her faith and her vulnerability.    Her feast day is this coming Friday 13th December. 


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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