Biography of Saint Lucy, Bringer of Light

The legend of a young Christian martyr in ancient Rome

Mosaic of St. Lucy
A church mosaic depicting St. Lucy (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Saint Lucy, also known as Lucia of Syracuse (284–304 A.D.), was an early Christian who was martyred during the Diocletianic Persecution in the Roman Empire. She is one of the most highly venerated saints in Christianity and one of only eight women mentioned by name in the Roman Catholic Mass. Accounts of her life differ, but most religious scholars agree that she was martyred after a disappointed suitor reported her as a Christian to Roman authorities.

Fast Facts: Saint Lucy

  • Known For: Early Christian martyr whose feast day has become known as a festival of light
  • Born: 284 A.D. in Syracuse, Roman Empire
  • Died: 304 A.D. in Syracuse, Roman Empire
  • Venerated In: Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion, Lutheranism
  • Feast Day: December 13

Early Life

Lucy was born in 283 to wealthy Roman parents in the area of Syracuse. Her father seems to have been a Roman nobleman, while her mother, Eutychia, had Greek origins. When Lucy was five years old, her father died, leaving Lucy and Eutychia to fend for themselves.

Lucy was a Christian from her early life, which was challenging, if not downright dangerous, in pagan Rome. As a young girl, she knew that she would be expected to marry and that there was a dowry set aside for her. However, she secretly consecrated her virginity to God, and she had hopes of being able to lead a celibate life and give her dowry away to the poor.

Forced Marriage

Lucy’s mother Eutychia was either unaware of her daughter’s vow or was concerned for her future as a single woman of the Christian faith. Eutychia arranged a marriage for Lucy, betrothing her to a young man from a wealthy pagan family. Part of the sudden betrothal was due to Eutychia’s poor health. She suffered from an unknown bleeding disorder and wanted to secure her daughter’s future quickly.

Because of her illness, Eutychia made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Agatha, a Christian martyr from an earlier era of Roman persecution. While the women were away on pilgrimage, Lucy reportedly experienced a vision of St. Agatha in her dreams. The vision told Lucy that her mother would be cured because of Lucy’s great faith and that Lucy would achieve glory and honor.

When Lucy and Eutychia returned home, Eutychia's health did, in fact, improve significantly. Lucy shared her vision with her mother and asked for permission to distribute most of the wealth from her dowry to the poor. Eutychia tried to convince Lucy to give the riches away in her will, rather than right away. Lucy declined, explaining that true charity meant giving her riches away while she was still alive, not when she was dead and had no further use for them.

Denunciation and Martyrdom

Word of Lucy’s plans to distribute her dowry reached her Roman fiancé, who furiously denounced her to the Roman authorities. Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse, ordered Lucy to prove her devotion to the empire and its religious practices by burning a sacrifice to an icon of the emperor. Lucy refused.

Paschiasius sentenced Lucy to be raped in a brothel as punishment for her refusal to comply. Christian tradition states that the soldiers sent to take her away were unable to force her to move, even though they outmatched her in physical strength. Other narratives depict Lucy losing her eyes, either as a means of torture by her Roman captors or as a self-mutilation to discourage the attentions of pagan men. Eventually, Lucy was killed with a sword. The traditional account states that, when her body was prepared for burial in her family’s mausoleum, her eyes had been miraculously restored.

Venerated Through History

By the sixth century, Saint Lucy and her story had spread through the Christian world, to the point that she was mentioned in the Sacramentary of Pope Gregory I. Her feast day was celebrated across the Christian world until the Protestant Reformation and subsequent schisms. Today, she is venerated in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches.

Saint Lucy is the patron saint of the blind (tied to the lore of her loss of her eyes during her martyrdom), as well as of authors, some craftsmen, laborers, and martyrs. She is also the patron saint of Syracuse in Sicily, Italy, where she spent her short life. The island nation of Saint Lucia, located in the Caribbean, also considers Saint Lucy to be their patroness.

Saint Lucy’s name (Lucia in Latin) shares the root luc with the Latin word for light, lux. Because of this connection, Saint Lucy is often depicted in art and religious custom as a bringer of light – which also ties in to her patronage of eyes and sight. Her feast day is December 13, during Advent and in winter for the Northern Hemisphere, so there is significant iconography of Lucy as a bringer of light in the darkness. For this reason, she is particularly venerated as part of Scandinavian Christian custom; young girls dress in a white gown and wear wreaths of lights during celebrations in the darkest days of winter. Indeed, the fact that Saint Lucy’s feast day is celebrated as a festival of light seems appropriate for a woman who believed she was bearing the light of Christianity in a world that punished her for it.

Sources

  • de Voragine, Jacobus. The Golden Legend. Translated by William Caxton. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/.
  • “Saint Lucy.” Catholic Online, https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=75.
  • “St. Lucy.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Lucy