Siracusa: “My sins are all mortal.”

Caravaggio is one of the bad boys in the history of art with a biography so outlandish it reads like fiction. When he arrived in Sicily in 1608 he was wanted for murder in Rome and had brawled his way across the Mediterranean.

There a story of his entering a church in Messina where he was offered a bowl of water. He asked what it is was for and was told it was holy water to cleanse his soul of venial sins. Caravaggio is said to have replied, “Then it’s of no use to me. My sins are all mortal.”

He completed three paintings in Sicily one of which –The Burial of St. Lucy is on display in the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia in Ortigia – felicitously described to us as the “sticky-out-bit” of Siracusa. Ortigia is actually an island connected to the mainland by two short bridges. The painting is big and located right behind the altar where you might usually expect to find a portrait of Jesus surrounded by disciples among the angels and cherubs. 

Photography was not allowed so I took a picture of this wonderful pipe instead.

And talking of outrageous behavior, this cat strolled out across the Piazza Minerva, positioned itself by the wall of the cathedral – formerly the ancient Temple of Minerva – and took a shit. Then without so much as a sniff or a scrape it strolled back under the metal grille and into the grounds of the Artemision. Shocking!

This is a detail from the Fountain of Diana in the Piazza Archimede.

Here’s the gruesome story of the painting and if you want to see the Caravaggio I could not photograph it’s below:

St Lucy was a local saint of Syracuse, who had been denounced as a Christian by her former suitor and had died from her tortures in 304. Caravaggio may have worked in haste to produce a picture before the feast of St Lucy on 13 December. His Sicilian biographer states that he owed the commission to his friend Minniti, who may also have helped him paint it.

Originally Lucy’s head was severed from her body but later Caravaggio joined it and left just a slit in the front of her neck – perhaps recalling St Cecilia, whose still-intact body, with a gash in the nape of the neck, had been sculpted in 1600 by Maderno. A more local influence was the crypt of the Syracusan church where Lucy had been buried, for cavernous spaces dwarf the human actors.

The heavily-muscled grave-diggers emerge from murky shadows, the mourners are so much smaller that they seem placed some distance away, the officer directing operations beside the bishop is obscured and only the young man above the saint stands out poignantly in his red cloak. Characteristically, light imitates the action of the sun by falling from the right. The scene takes the viewer back to the age of the Church of the catacombs.

The Web Gallery of Art 

The Burial of St. Lucy, Caravaggio.



  1. Tragic that the main Caravaggio painting in Palermo, in one of the fabulous Serpotta chapels, was stolen in a Mafia job and has never come to light since.
    David N´s last blog post ..Rosenkavalier classes: let in the light

  2. Happy that Sue linked to these enjoyable entries, Josie. Re: the cat—isn’t there a saying from somewhere that “even a dog can piss on a cathedral”? The Caravaggio reminds me of the Met show up til the 22nd of the month by a Caravaggisti (Caravaggisto?), Valentin de Boulougne. Not up to he master’s level but quite worthwhile. Caravaggio painted peasants’ dirty feet; Valentin put hair on their chests. So much for classicism.

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