Today 13 December, is the feast of Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy. She is a very popular saint, venerated all over the Christian world, especially in Scandinavia where girls dress in white carrying candles on their heads singing a hymn to the saint. 13 December used to coincide with the winter solstice and so the celebrations are probably based on an older festival of lights. It’s interesting that the name Lucia derives from the latin word lux meaning light.
For anyone who has arrived in Venice by train, the name of Santa Lucia is oddly familiar. This is because its the name of the main train station, Venezia Santa Lucia. But the reason for this, and Venice’s link with the saint goes back much further than the advent of the railways.
On 12 April 1204, the Venetian army, led in person by Doge Enrico Dandolo, who had been waiting for payment from the Byzantine Emperor for having carried a large number of troops from Venice to Constantinople as part of the Fourth Crusade, finally lost patience and attacked and sacked the city itself. In the aftermath, the Venetians took almost every thing that wasn’t nailed down in the city and many things that were.
Modern Venice would look very different had this looting not taken place: the four bronze horses of San Marco, a lot of the sculptures on the facade of the basilica, the golden altar screen (pala d’oro) and many of the hundreds of small byzantine sculptures adorning Venetian palazzi, were part of the haul.
Also taken were many relics, one of the most important of which was the body of Santa Lucia, an early Italian saint from Syracuse in Sicily. When she died, her body had been kept in Syracuse before being transferred to Corfinio in Abruzzo, thence to Metz, then Luitberg, and finally to Constantinople where the Venetians found it.
She then lay in the church dedicated to her at the opposite end of the Canal Grande to San Marco. Her head was removed and given as a gift to the King of France in 1513. In 1861, her church was demolished to make space for the train station and the body was moved up the canal to the church of San Geremia, where it remained until 1981. Then it was stolen. For five weeks its whereabouts was unknown, until the police found it on 13 December, her feast day.
In 2004, Lucia went on her travels once again. This time to her home town of Syracuse for a visit before returning to Venice, where she can be seen once again in the church of San Geremia.
So who was Santa Lucia? Born in 283 Lucia was born into a wealthy family and brought up by her mother after the death of her father. As a teenager, Lucia became a Christian and dedicated her virginity to God and planned to give her dowry to the poor. When her mother fell ill, she was afraid for her daughter’s future and so arranged a marriage between her and a wealthy pagan.
Lucia prayed to Saint Agatha who appeared to her in a vision. She said that her mother would recover and that she herself would become as venerated in Syracuse as Agatha was in her home town of Catania.
Lucia’s mother recovered and allowed Lucia to start giving her dowry away. When her betrothed heard of this, he grew angry and denounced Lucia as a Christian to the local authorities. To cut a long story short, she was eventually put to death and declared a saint and martyr by the early church.
A later version of the story says that she had her eyes put out before death and for this reason she has become the patron saint of the blind and people with vision problems as well as eye doctors and opticians. She is sometimes represented in art carrying her eyes on a plate. Also, votive candles in the shape of her eyes are often burned to accompany prayers for help with vision problems.
At the top of this page you can see a painting of Santa Lucia receiving communion just before her martyrdom. This was painted by Giambattista Tiepolo and is in the church of Santi Apostoli.