Monday, September 20, 2010

Three Saints: Santa Lucía, San Lázaro and San Sebastián

Who are these three saints?

Santa Lucía, or Saint Lucy in English, was a virgin martyr born to nobility in Syracuse, Sicily who became the patron saint of blindness, hemorrhage disease and authors. Her troubles began when Santa Lucía wished to remain a virgin as a sign of her faith although her mother had arranged a marriage for her. She prayed to St. Agatha for a miracle that would convince her mother, and when her mother's hemorrhage disease was cured she decided to give in to her daughter and Lucy became the patron of this illness. However, her suitor did not back down and yet still she refused. Her punishment was to become a prostitute, but God saved her from being dragged away by a team of oxen. Next she was tortured and sentenced to death but the fires for her burning at the stake would not stay lit. Finally she was killed by being stabbed in the neck with a dagger or a sword, winning her crown of virginity and martyrdom (Saint Lucy).

Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta, St. Lucy and St. Agata, 16th c. St. Agatha, to whom St. Lucy prayed for a miracle, is traditionally depicted carrying her breasts on a plate to represent one of the tortures she was subjected to during her martyrdom. It is also speculated that St. Lucy too had her breasts sliced off during her torture.

It is unclear whether her eyes were gouged out during her torture or if she cut them out in response to her unwanted suitor's advances. St. Lucy is traditionally represented in art as carrying her eyes on a golden platter or in a cup or bowl to represent her martyrdom. Before her death, it is said that her eye sight was miraculously restored. The online source for this part of her legend also offers a unique image of St. Lucy painted by Francesco del Cossa in the late-fifteenth century in which her eyes are depicted instead growing like buds from plant stem (St. Lucy). The Golden Legends of the Medieval Sourcebook state that, “In Lucy is said, the way of light” because not only does her name mean "light" but her feast day, December 13th, also fell on the winter solstice before the Gregorian calendar was introduced(Bridge).

St. Lucy holding her eyes like flowers.

Saint Lázaro, or Saint Lazarus of Bethany, who is the patron saint of lepers, was a disciple of Jesus who fell ill and died before Jesus was able to reach him. After mourning with Lazarus’ two sisters, which is described by the simple and famous phrase "Jesus wept," Jesus went to the tomb of Lazarus after he had been dead for four days and called him out (John 11:35). Lazarus was thus raised from the dead (Lazor). This story comes from the Gospel of John, although there is also a legend that Lazarus later was cast out of Bethany by the Jews and arrived in Provence to later become the first bishop of Marseilles, where his head is kept, while according to the Eastern Orthodox Church, his remains lie in Constantinople (Clugnet). In the Orthodox religion, the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is Lazarus Saturday (Lazor). The Order of St. Lazarus is a military and religious order of Christian chivalry dedicated to defending the faith, the sick and the poor. Its symbol is the Maltese Cross, and it is represented by the color green, an interesting coincidence because of the importance of the color green and its symbolic, highly sexual meanings evident in Lorca’s work (Clugnet).

Born in Narbonne, Gaul, and raised in Milan, Italy, Saint Sebastian was born to a wealthy Roman family and became known for his acts of kindness and charity towards fellow Christians. In order to carry out these acts, he joined the Roman army around 283 to escape suspicion. As a soldier, Sebastian made many converts and helped to cure many people including the Roman governor by making the sign of the cross and performing baptisms. By 286, many of his converts and fellow Christians had been martyred, and Sebastian himself was found out by the Emperor Diocletian to be a Christian. He was then given to Mauritanian archers, tied to a tree, and shot to death with arrows.

Holbein, Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, c. 1516

A traditional Renaissance depiction of St. Sebastian.

El Greco, St. Sebastian

However, he was found alive by Saint Irene, who nursed him back to health. Soon enough, he was found again by the Emperor and sentenced to be clubbed to death and his body thrown into a sewer. His body was recovered by a young woman and buried at the catacombs of Calixtus instead, where a church was built over his remains. There are several relics of Saint Sebastian scattered in cathedrals throughout France. Traditionally, he is considered a protector against the plague because he supposedly saved the cities of Rome (680), Milan (1575), and Lisbon (1599) from epidemics ("St. Sebastian").

St. Sebastian with an angel

St. Sebastian Basilica, Rome

St. Sebastian today: Robert Mapplethorpe, St. Sebastian

Lorca, Lucy and Lazarus

While Lorca was not a practicing Catholic, he was fascinated by Catholic liturgy and ritual, leading him to seek inspiration from religious themes such as the lives of saints which he would have studied while reading The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Vorgine. In his introduction to Sebastian’s Arrows, Christian Maurer explains how St. Lucy, St. Lazarus and St. Sebastian relate to Lorca’s poetics as well as his relationship to Salvador Dalí. St. Lucy and St. Lazarus appear in Lorca’s 1927 poem as symbols of the different directions each artists philosophy seemed to take: while “St. Lucy, which favors ‘the exterior of things, the clean airy beauty of the skin, the charm of slender surfaces,’ would appear to represent the art of Dalì in the mid-1920s,” St. Lazarus appears to “[symbolize] Lorca’s own poetics” which had to do with mystery, depth and inner life (Maurer 17). For Dalí, however, St. Lazarus was “the quintessence of putrefaction” (Maurer 18). Maurer suggests that Lorca was thinking about these two poles as “dialectical principles” in art as well as in his relationship with Dalí that would soon come to an end (20).

Unpacking the Symbolism of St. Sebastian

For both Lorca and Dalí, St. Sebastian became a symbolic figure with many meanings, particularly in light of the deep but often tense relationship between the two young artists. While Maurer’s insights into the symbolism of St. Sebastian according to Lorca and Dalí give us clues as to how to interpret the appearance of this figure in Lorca’s work, the multiplicity of meanings and intersections with Lorca’s art and life also leaves room for further interpretation by theatre artists like us. Although Lorca would have been familiar with this well-known Spanish icon, he first mentions St. Sebastian in 1926 after seeing a renaissance sculpture of the saint by Alonso Berruguette at the National Museum of Sculpture in Valladoid (18). It was only six years later while giving a public reading of Poet in New York that Lorca paused to say that, “one of man’s most beautiful postures is that of St. Sebastian” (20).

Lorca began by thinking about St. Sebastian as an “emblem of poetry,” planning to give three lectures on “The Myth of Saint Sebastian,” although these were never written (18). While it is unclear why Lorca chose St. Sebastian as a symbol of poetry, he clearly connected archery with the work of the poet who “fires his arrows” only at the best images” (19). Here, St. Sebastian is symbolic of the target of “the artistic creation” of the poet or artist (19). However, St. Sebastian also represents the state of vulnerability that Lorca believed was essential for the creation of poetry, suggesting that despite his passive posture, he is also a figure for the artist. Lorca describes this understanding of St. Sebastian as a symbol for the artist in a letter to Dalí, explaining that “[St. Sebastian] uses his body to lend eternity to whatever is fleeting, giving visible form to an abstract aesthetic idea, just as the wheel gives us the consummate idea of perpetual motion. That is why I love him” (20). For Lorca, St. Sebastian functions at once as a metaphor for both poetry and the poet.

Lorca, San Sebastián, 1927

Just as the dichotomy between the symbolism of St. Lucy and St. Lazarus can be compared to the philosophy of Dalí and Lorca respectively, St. Sebastian is essentially an antithetical figure invoked by these artists to “[mediate]…the debate between modernity and tradition, pathos and ‘asepsia,’ [or freedom from contaminants]” that Lorca and Dalì were constantly in dialogue about (17). Both Dalí and Lorca, for example, had differing perspectives on the vulnerable, passive posture of the saint. Dalí thought that as a protector against plague St. Sebastian could function as a protector against “the ‘germs’ of emotional ‘putrefaction’” (23). In addition, Dalí saw the traditionally “impassive” expression of St. Sebastian as a “flight from emotion” that made him another “spiritual ‘straight man,” like Buster Keaton (23). Lorca, on the other hand saw St. Sebastian’s “serenity in the midst of misfortune” as an admirable quality in the face of what amounted to social criticism and oppression (23).

Both men, however, recognized the homoerotic symbolism of St. Sebastian because of the way he functioned as a metaphor for their relationship and covert homosexuality. Lorca and Dalí would have been aware of how St. Sebastian acquired homoerotic meaning in the 19th century from Wilde and his contemporaries, who developed his physical penetration to reflect a figurative one in which his serenity and open posture were signs of his enjoyment and willing desire (21). Moreover, there were also parallels drawn between the way in which St. Sebastian suffered for his faith that he had to conceal and the suffering of the covert homosexual. Lorca would have certainly identified strongly with this symbolism of St. Sebastian, both in terms of his ideas about dual identity and his own homosexuality. Dalí clearly connected St. Sebastian to Lorca, writing that, “sometimes I think he [St. Sebastian] is you [Lorca],” and using Lorca as a model for drawings of their favorite saint (21). However Dalí himself identified with St. Sebastian when it came to his relationship with Lorca, whom he believed was in love with him, and Dalí mocks the fact that Lorca’s desire was never consummated when he asks his friend in a letter, “Didn’t you ever think how strange it is that his ass doesn’t have a single wound?” (22). In this context, St. Sebastian’s passive expression is that of “a figure who inspires passion without returning it” and an object of the lover’s gaze (22). Perhaps the most tragic meaning of St. Sebastian for Lorca is not one that makes a general statement about the nature of inner identity and homosexuality but is rather the way in which St. Sebastian might symbolize unrequited love.

Works Cited:

Bridge, James. "St. Lucy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Web. 9-14-2010 .

Clugnet, Léon. "St. Lazarus of Bethany." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Web. 9-14-2010 .

Lazor, Rev. Paul. "Feasts and Saints." Orthodox Church in America. Web. 9-28-10. <>.

Maurer, Christopher. Sebastian’s Arrows: Letters and Mementos of Salvador Dalì and Federico Garcìa Lorca. Swan Isle Press. 2005. Print.

“Saint Lucy of Syracuse”. 20 April 2010. Web. 9-28-10. <>.

"St. Lucy." Library of University of California Images. Web. 9-28-10. <>.

“St. Sebastian.” Eternal World Television Network. Web. 9-14-10. <>.

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