Santa Lucia (St Lucy)

One of the more disturbing pictures in the College's collection features a beautiful young woman carrying a plate with a ghastly surprise laid out on it. This is Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) with eyes both in her head and on the plate. Perhaps we should call her 'four eyes'?

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Painting of Santa Lucia
Saint Lucia
Style of Agostino Ciampelli
possibly 18th c.

Her sight has already been restored on account of her virtue. She was a virgin and martyr who died at Syracuse during the persecution of Diocletian. According to her Acts she was a wealthy Sicilian woman, who refused offers of marriage, gave her goods to the poor, and was accused by her suitor to the authorities for being a Christian. The judge ordered that she should be violated in a brothel, but she was made miraculously immovable; he then tried to have her burnt, but this too was unsuccessful. Finally, she was killed by the sword.

You may click on the image of this painting to enlarge it.

Lucia’s cult was both early and widespread. An inscription of c.400 referring to her survives at Syracuse, and her name occurs in the oldest Roman sacramentaries. Churches were dedicated to her in Rome, Naples, and Venice. Her body was transferred from Syracuse to Constantinople (1038) and from there to San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice (1204). Later, her head was brought from Venice to the Cathedral of Bourges (1513). The relics were moved to the church of S. Maria Annunziata in the Cannaregio district of Venice in 1280. This church was replaced and renamed after Lucia in 1313 and again replaced in 1609-11. This church was in turn demolished in 1860 to make way for the extension to the railway station (Venezia S. Lucia) and the body moved to the parish church of S. Geremia where it can still be seen. The current shrine dates from 1930 and the casket from 1981.

This painting is just one example of the cult of this Sicilian saint, which was already widespread by the fifth century. Her name derives from the Latin for light, and she is regarded as a patron saint of those suffering from eye trouble. Her feast is celebrated on 13th December, traditionally thought to be the shortest and darkest day of the year (as in the poem by John Donne ‘A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day’). In some parts of Europe, notably Sweden, her feast day is celebrated as a major element to the Advent season and she is remembered with glittering winter processions, drinking punch and singing seasonal songs.

Detail of painting showing eyes on a plate

In religious iconography St Lucia can be identified because she carries her eyes on a plate. This distinguishes her from St Odilia who may often be seen carrying her eyes on the Bible.

This painting was purchased for the British Optical Association Museum in January 1939 as by Francesco Furini but this is now agreed to be an unlikely attribution. It could be English and the studio of John Hoppner has been suggested by the College's art restorer, but if it is English the original of which it is a copy was almost certainly Italian.