Santa Lucia alla Badia


The façade of Santa Lucia alla Badia, with its barley-sugar twist columns, intricate wrought iron balcony, and stone as delicately worked as silver, is one of Ortigia’s prettiest. The original church, built by Queen Isabella of Castille on the site where it was thought Santa Lucia had been raped, was completely destroyed in the 1693 earthquake. Dedicated to Siracusa’s much-loved patron saint, it was the focus of celebrations for the miracle of Santa Lucia in May. The mother superior clearly understood the resonance of this site for the people of Siracusa, and immediately after the earthquake requested that a shack was erected among the rubble, as a temporary church. Her request was denied, so that work could start straight away on the new church. The building was supposed to be completed within two years – another sign of how important this church was felt to be for Siracusa – although in the end, it was not finished until 1703. The nuns – belonging to a closed Cistercian Order – returned. There are still poignant indications of what life was like in a Closed Order, notably the oval parlatorio (to the left as you enter) with grills set in the wall so that nuns could talk to their families without being seen. For the past few years Santa Lucia alla Badia has been the temporary home of one of Siracusa’s most prized works of art – The Burial of Santa Lucia by Caravaggio. Caravaggio arrived in the city in October 1608, having escaped from prison in Malta, and received an immediate commission to have a painting of Santa Lucia ready for her festival on December 13. Some scholars think the fact that the upper two-thirds of the canvas are taken up by a bare wall, may have more to do with lack of time than aesthetics. The canvas was designed not for this church, but for the church of Santa Lucia across in the Borgata, scene of the saint’s martyrdom, and home of her tomb (if not her body, which has been in Venice since the time of the Crusades). Bathed in shaft of sunlight, dwarfed by stark, scorched bare plaster walls, two mighty gravediggers brace themselves to lower the corpse of the saint into her tomb, watched by a bishop and mourners. One tradition is that the bearded gravedigger to the left is a portrait of Alof de Wignacourt, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta – and that painting him in this role was Caravaggio’s way of taking revenge on the man who had him imprisoned. While still feted by the Order of the Knights of Malta, Caravaggio painted the portrait of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, now in the Louvre, Paris. To draw your own conclusion as to whether de Wignacourt was also inspiration for Caravaggio’s gravedigger, see the painting online at Scritto da Ros Belford