Thursday, March 20, 2014

Saint Lucy and Light in the Middle Ages

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
    For I am every dead thing,
    In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
            For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.
     [Second verse of John Donne’s “A Nocturnal upon St. Luci’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”]

What with today being the Vernal Equinox—“the next spring” in John Donne’s words above—and what with my preoccupation presently with the Middle Ages, it seems appropriate to look at one of the great saints of that period, Saint Lucy or, more formally Lucia of Syracuse (283-304). Her feast day fell on the Winter Solstice under the Julian calendar but is on December 13 in the Gregorian—hence Donne’s title; Donne (1572-1631) lived just as the Gregorian calendar was being revised (1582) and had not yet taken hold.

To be sure, looking at the dates of Saint Lucy’s brief life, she predates the Middle Ages (usually marked as starting in 476) by nearly two hundred years. But part of my theme in this series is to question arbitrary time designations. Saint Lucy lived in Diocletian’s time, which marks the de facto quartering of the Roman Empire, as in “dismembered.” Some 300 years after her death, her name appears in the missal (or sacramentary) written by the most influential Pope of the Middle Ages, Saint Gregory The Great (r. 590-604). The Venerable Bede (see this post) attests to her popularity in England in the eighth century; her feast day was a holiday of the second rank (no work was to be performed) and remained so until the Reformation came. She is featured in Dante’s Divine Comedy (that brings us to the fourteenth century), inspired Donne (seventeenth), and yesterday, on winter’s last day, as we returned from a early dinner with friends, we passed, in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan the St. Lucy Catholic Church (make that the twenty-first).

Concerning Gregory I, a word or two. He lived in the time when the Goths lost Italy, tried to retake Rome, then held by Belisarius, succeeded after Belisarius’ recall, and lost it again to Belisarius’ successor, Narses. These events, during which he was serving as an official in Rome, were his education—until he turned to the religious life as a monk and was later named Pope—in part because of his administrative gifts. His influence over Christendom owed much to his liturgical changes, thus that sacramentary. It was much used over Christendom and thus spread knowledge of Saint Lucy widely.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (link), Saint Lucy came from a wealthy family in Syracuse, Italy, and early aspired to a life of virginal holiness. Her father was a Roman, her mother probably of Greek origin. Her father died early. Thereafter Lucy endeavored to enter a life of prayer and poverty, but in this effort her mother, Eutychia, resisted her. The Encyclopedia continues as follows:

The fame of the virgin-martyr Agatha, who had been executed fifty-two years before in the Decian persecution, was attracting numerous visitors to her relics at Catania, not fifty miles from Syracuse, and many miracles had been wrought through her intercession. Eutychia was therefore persuaded to make a pilgrimage to Catania, in the hope of being cured of a hæmorrhage, from which she had been suffering for several years. There she was in fact cured, and Lucy, availing herself of the opportunity, persuaded her mother to allow her to distribute a great part of her riches among the poor.

The largess stirred the greed of the unworthy youth to whom Lucy had been unwillingly betrothed, and he denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Sicily. It was in the year 303, during the fierce persecution of Diocletian. She was first of all condemned to suffer the shame of prostitution; but in the strength of God she stood immovable, so that they could not drag her away to the place of shame. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, and again God saved her. Finally, she met her death by the sword. But before she died she foretold the punishment of Paschasius and the speedy termination of the persecution, adding that Diocletian would reign no more, and Maximian [Diocletian’s co-regent] would meet his end. So, strengthened with the Bread of Life, she won her crown of virginity and martyrdom.

The Catholic Encyclopedia continues saying that her predictions, as recorded, did not take place—and then continues to point out the rather weak evidence for the facts stated, except the time and place of her death. The Encyclopedia says: “For the rest, the most notable are her connexion with St. Agatha and the miraculous cure of Eutychia, and it is to be hoped that these have not been introduced by the pious compiler of the saint’s story or a popular instinct to link together two national saints.”

Although the little we know about her comes from the Acts of the Martyrs, and furthermore, per the Encyclopedia, from a fifth century version, the bare facts and a knowledge of human nature allows one to picture the same-old-same-old situation. Lucy might never have died a martyr had not her family attracted greedy suitors, and no father alive to keep them in line. The times were tense then, hence the Diocletian persecutions; her husband to be—no doubt already mentally spending his future wealth—fell into a rage at her decision to give most of it to the poor and, in those times, could persuade the authorities to intervene.

The fact of Saint Agatha’s existence is also not doubted, nor the fact that she met her own martyrdom fifty years before. That, and the “popular instinct” that no doubt immediately began to embroider Saint Lucy’s life, and later to make it much more weird and awesome, are a kind of deposit we can use to picture to ourselves the popular feelings that colored the cultural-religious life of a civilization in its death throes. Our very modern Wikipedia (link) brings us one of the much later embroideries:

Absent in the early narratives and traditions, at least until the 15th century, is the story of Lucia tortured by eye-gouging. According to later accounts, before she died she foretold the punishment of Paschasius and the speedy end of the persecution, adding that Diocletian would reign no more, and Maximian would meet his end. This so angered Paschasius that he ordered the guards to remove her eyes. Another version has Lucy taking her own eyes out in order to discourage a persistent suitor who admired them. When her body was prepared for burial in the family mausoleum it was discovered that her eyes had been miraculously restored.

The Renaissance went to work on that embellishment later, including one painting, dated 1521, in which she holds her own eyes on plate. But the Renaissance is, of course, an introduction to our modern times, hence nearly a hundred years after the Middle Ages formally ended in 1453. The image I show, also from Wikipedia, hews to the medieval feeling mode and is dated 1340. She holds a dagger that caused her death and the lamp, which is her symbol. The painting is by Nicolò di Segna.

Why the lamp? Well, the etymology of Lucy goes back to the Greek lux for light—which links her to that longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, when we need light most urgently. And these choices qualify her wonderfully well, it seems to me, as the symbol both for the Dark Ages, the light that, in time, arose from within them—but was already present before the darkness fell. And yes, the Church is not deaf to popular instinct either. Saint Lucy is also the patron saint of the blind and those with troubled vision.
Posts in this series: firstsecondthirdfourthfifth, sixth, and seventh.

1 comment:

  1. Great story.
    Puts me in mind of El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth) with entities standing about with eyes on a plate...


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