As it turns out, paintings of Saint Lucy carrying eyeballs, standing next to eyeballs, or offering up plates of eyeballs emerge countless times across Renaissance art. According to historians, they were most popular in Italy, but examples also emerged in Spain, Peru, and other majority-Catholic countries thanks to a medieval addition to Saint Lucy’s macabre origin story.
Many versions of the legend exist, but most accounts agree that Lucy was born in Syracuse, Sicily, around 283 C.E. to an aristocratic family and was martyred circa 304 C.E. by the Roman emperor Diocletian because of her allegiance to a Christian god. Supposedly, she also vowed to remain chaste and, going against her family’s wishes, refused to marry a pagan.
The accounts of the torture that Lucy endured range widely. Some describe attempted punishment involving a fiery stake, imprisonment in a brothel, and rape. In The Golden Legend, a popular medieval chronicle of the lives of saints, her sentencer Paschasius, the Governor of Sicily, cries: “Then I shall send thee to a house of ill fame! There thy body will be violated.” Lucy’s retort smacks with pure courage: “The body is not soiled unless the soul consents.…Why delayest thou? Son of the devil, begin! Carry out thy heinous design!”