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Caravaggio escaped from prison in Malta, in 1608, where they held him on an unknown charge.
He found sanctuary in the church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro in the Sicilian city of Syracuse, where the church commissioned him to paint The Burial of Saint Lucy as a tribute to their patron saint.
The tale of Saint Lucy was well known in medieval Europe. A good Christian virgin in the 3rd century, she wanted to give most of her dowry and other wealth to the poor. After her mother was miraculously cured of bleeding disorder, Lucy finally convinced her mother to let her go ahead with the charitable giveaway.
Unfortunately, the man Lucy was betrothed to didn't like this and informed the local governor. The governor ordered Lucy to burn some of her wealth as a sacrifice to a picture of the Roman emperor. Because of her faith, Lucy refused, and the governor ordered his men to drag her to a brothel so the customers could defile her.
Miraculously, the governor's men were unable to move her from where she stood, even when they hitched up a team of oxen and tried to drag her.
In frustration, an onlooker stabbed her before others joined in. Lucy met a gruesome end when the crowd of pagans finally piled wood around her and set her on fire.
The Burial of Saint Lucy was a Unique Interpretation by Caravaggio
Before Caravaggio, most artists exploited the gruesome story for its shock value by painting images that reminded viewers of its gory aspects. Domenico Beccafumi, for instance, showed the saint holding her own eyes on a platter in his painting Saint Lucy (1521.) Such paintings always guarantee a strong reaction from viewers, even if the reaction is to be revolted.
In The Burial of Saint Lucy, Caravaggio has decided to focus on the tragedy of the event instead of the over-the-top violence. The viewer sees the saint sprawled on the ground with her arm flopping into the dirt and her head lolling to the side. While she lies placid and dead, she obviously hasn't enjoyed a peaceful death.
He enhances the sense of tragedy through the strong emotions of the gathered crowd, who look down on Lucy's body in varying states of despair and shock.
The gravediggers, who might easily dominate the picture by taking up the foreground, seem to frame Lucy instead. They further draw the viewer's attention to the saint, while they're very presence emphasises the sad nature of the event.
A guard stands off to the side reminding the viewer of how and why Lucy died. This must have stirred the emotions of the devout medieval European population even more deeply than it affects viewers today.
The Burial of Saint Lucy is one of Caravaggio's last works, painted just two years before he died. Unfortunately, it was in a bad condition when it was discovered and hasn't been completely restored yet.