Lucia was martyred in 304, during the persecutions of Diocletian, at the age of twenty-one. Her body remained in Syracuse until 1039 when it was taken first to Byzantium and then to Venice where it lies in the church of San Geremia. She was one of the first Christian martyrs in Sicily to become the patron saint of her city. By the sixth century, Santa Lucia was recognised by the whole church and was included in the Roman Canon by Pope Gregory the Great.
After her death, Lucia’s fame spread rapidly. She gained devotees in Rome, and then throughout Italy, particularly in Naples where the popular song Santa Lucia originated. She also gained a following in Scandinavia. Her feast day is celebrated annually on 13 December, the anniversary of her death. On this day in Syracuse the silver statue of the saint, kept in the cathedral, is carried through the city to the basilica of Santa Lucia, the church built on the place where she died on the far side of the Little Harbour, to cries of: She is Syracusan! Caravaggio’s vast canvas, The Burial of Santa Lucia, one of his last masterpieces painted during his stay in Syracuse in 1608, was commissioned as the altarpiece to decorate the basilica. Now that restoration work to the basilica is complete, Caravaggio’s painting has been returned to its historic position from its temporary display in the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia in piazza Duomo.
The name Lucia means light, and according to some versions of her story, her eyes were torn out during her martyrdom to be healed by God. This explains why she is often pictured holding two eyes on a dish and why she became the patron saint of the blind. Dante recognised Lucia’s importance when he included her in the Inferno, Canto II, as one of three images of Divine Grace, along with Mary and Beatrice.
The continuing appeal of Santa Lucia was demonstrated by an event that took place on 15 December 2004. The church in Venice had given permission for her body to be returned to Syracuse for one week to mark 1700 years from her death. A large crowd had gathered at the harbour to welcome home the body of the saint that had been absent from Syracuse for 965 years. It was an emotional homecoming. A local resident recalled the scene:
“When Santa Lucia came back I was at the harbour like all Syracusans, all of us, not only for the big event but for the feeling of loving Santa Lucia so much, and to welcome her in the best and warmest way. I am sure that everybody felt she was a young girl, kidnapped long ago, finally coming home after a lot of suffering, but now safe! What surprised me was the total silence of thousands of people, who held their breath as she touched the ground of the Marina. Can you imagine that I had to swallow more than one tear, notwithstanding my agnostic heart? I think that this strange emotion was shared by every one of us.”
At the welcoming ceremony the saint appeared with her head resting on a red cushion, a silver mask over her face and her body clothed in a red garment with a golden fringe, dotted with pearls. There followed a week of pilgrimage and intense activity in Syracuse, with thousands of people coming to honour the saint, the most important symbol of the city.
When the week was up, a farewell service was held in the basilica, to a packed congregation. The crowd outside in the piazza followed the service on a giant screen with many tears and signs of the cross. Afterwards they watched as the saint’s body was placed in a red helicopter of the fire service. Waving handkerchiefs and scarves, the crowd stood quietly with upturned faces as the helicopter made a last turn over the city and disappeared towards Catania and the flight back to Venice.