(Essay 3) blackbird and a pear tree by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum

A family story told in art, names, places, denied cultures,

black and sensual madonnas,  diversity of beliefs,

visionary and healing Santa Lucia of Sicily

blackbird and a pear tree book cover (c) 2014, Trent Nahas
blackbird and a pear tree book cover (c) 2014, Trent Nahas


Subsequently, my study of black madonnas and other submerged beliefs of Sicily has converged with my need to understand the patron saint of Sicily—Lucia—whose name I carry.

Lucia was born before the common epoch, in the Greek capitol of Sicily, Syracuse.  After she went on healing pilgrimage with her sick mother to the tomb of Agate of Catania, Romans killed her in 304 CE, branding her as a heretic.

Veneration of Lucia sprung up on a site earlier devoted to Canaanite Astarte, then to Greek love goddess Aphrodite, then to Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva.

In early years of the common epoch, or early Judeo-Christianity, Lucia was equally venerated with the Jewish mother of Jesus, Mary.  When, Christianity was established by the Roman empire in the 4th century CE, Mary became the holy mother of Jesus, who was considered son of God, and Lucia was demoted, along with Agata of Catania, to Virgin Martyr of the church.

Thereafter the temple of Lucia at Syracuse was turned, by Muslims, into a Islamic mosque.  Normans converted the temple to a Christian church and, today, an icon of Santa Lucia is located in a chapel of the patriarchal Roman Catholic cathedral in Siracusa.

In vernacular (popular) art, she holds –not one male child—but a sheaf of wheat that can nourish everyone.  Her song Santa Lucia is sung all over the world.

In dominant Sicilian Catholic culture, Lucia is a virgin martyr who gave her eyes to a rapist in obedience to the church doctrine of virginity.  The foreground of church prayer cards depicts her dead, her visionless eyes plucked out in an offering, on a Catholic communion plate, to her rapist.

A dual vision is conveyed in a popular card wherein the person holding the card can change the image to the one wanted.  In the foreground   Lucia lies dead holding her visionless eyes on a communion plate . . . while in the background Lucia is alive and upright with her eyes wide open . . . healing and envisioning.

Healer as well as visionary in the popular culture of the African Mediterranean, Lucia’s presence wards off the “mal’occhio” or evil eye. (see Lawrence Di Stasi’s book on the mal’occhio).

Healing has been a significant concern of Sicilian women throughout the ages. In the African Mediterranean in the Muslim and Norman periods, Jews were known for their medical expertise.   In the Semitic period of Jews and Muslims in Sicily there were more women medical practitioners than in any other place in Europe. (Chiarellli, p. 177).

Sicily was a place of refuge after the Jewish temple was destroyed in 57 CE.  More Jews fled to Sicily when it became Muslim after the 7th Century CE. Sensing affinity, Muslims considered Jews “People of the Book” or “People of the Convenant”.  Jews had to pay taxes, but were free to administer their own affairs.   Jews were free to own property— except, in a revealing phrase-, they could not own “Christian slaves” (Chiarelli, p. 179).

To be continued. Read part 1 and part 2.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum.


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I’ve been following the work of Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum for so many years, and this particular essay is not only informative and rich, but also so very endearing and intimate. Her work on the Black Madonna in Goddessing magazine, so many years ago, let me to create art about Santa Lucia and make a trip to discover Black Madonnas in Europe. Every time I read or re-read her works on that subject, I’m taken on another deeply inspiring journey. Thank you for sharing this one with us.