In your grandmother’s sewing basket, the one with the rose toile lining, there is a pin-cushion in the shape of a tomato. It’s been so long since it was used, that it has faded from deep red to pale persimmon yellow, with petals of pale teal. The dozens of pins, thrust there so haphazardly, have over the mild barometric shifts of decades, begun to rust where metal meets cloth, and on the surface of this squat globe, little continents of rust have formed, and between them yellow seas. But look closer, much closer: On one of these continents, within a national boundary clearly marked by a stray blue thread, there is a great forest, its red earth towered over by the tallest, straightest, most silvery pines. In the dark of this forest you will discover a small band of horsemen, hunters, each of them having dismounted, carrying their bows at their sides, gathering around a fallen roebuck. The buck is still alive, though arrows protrude from his neck, his haunches, his underbelly. His upturned, oil-black eye rolls in its socket, restlessly, unable to focus or still. One hunter kneels beside the stag, pulling a knife from his boot to slit its throat. But look closer: much closer. On the beast’s hindquarters, beside a bleeding arrow, is a mysterious mark, not natural, but burnt into the hide. A brand. It is a pictogram; a capital M. (Is it the emperor’s stag? A local viscount’s? Who would brand a wild buck?) Between the pillars of the M, the hieroglyph depicts a doorway, which, as you peer closer, gains in detail. Around the doorframe there is a grid of mullions, and a transom above the door, and above it all a marquee, a painted signboard: it’s a storefront. Move in closer. The door is dark. It has swung open, and inside, where the smoke is thick and the walls are painted a glossy burgundy, is a kind of salon. In an array of ramshackle armchairs young soldiers sit, still in uniform, smoking cigarettes and doing whiskey shots, laughing in billows, and waiting their turn. Their laughter is so raucous, but the business of the salon is quiet: at the center of the group, under the spotlight of a desk lamp, one man relaxes his arm, while the tattoo artist buzzes his stinging electric needle along his bicep. The tattoo, indigo and copper, is half-completed. It depicts a butterfly, a swallowtail, large as a saucer, a kind of spotted cattleheart. But this butterfly is not newly transformed and floating free, it is a suffocated husk, and under its death’s head long specimen pins pierce its thorax and abdomen. If you look closer, much closer, it is possible to see, within the striations of the butterfly’s wings, the orthogonal grid of a city, a dark metropolis. Black and midnight blue, with thin towers made of steel, and pricks of white light banding the towers. Where the grid of the city warps it becomes clear, even in darkness, that the farthest boroughs skirt the bases of several low mountains, and that the city has grown around two great rivers. The first river has its source in alpine glaciers hundreds of miles away, and its waters, pure enough after their long journey, bring life to the city. As for the second river, the city itself is its source: it began as a thoroughfare running between all the poorest tenements, and then became a dumping ground for the debris of the thousands, of the hundreds of thousands, of the millions and their livestock, too, their piss-pots, their manure, their chemical waste, their outdated electronics, their carcasses. This river runs, but with the evil-smelling slowness of tar. Bridges span the rancid river, so the citizens need not wade through it, but its smell permeates the city. Under an iron bridge’s arachnid girders, in a pool of light cast by a powerful streetlamp, lies the intact skeleton of a young man, almost entirely picked clean by storks. His jaw has dropped. Like all skeletons, he cannot help smiling. From the mound of peat and feces, through the ribs and voided sockets of the skeleton, long strands of switchgrass, newly feathered, grow toward the bluish, synthetic light.
And where in all of this, you ask, is Saint Sebastian?
Saint Sebastian is no less than the bleeding arrow’s tip, the piercing gaze, the dubious wound that goads you to look closer, much closer.
Lucy is stubborn, Lucy is heavy; Lucy is yielding, Lucy is light.
There are two primary legends about Saint Lucy. The older legend tells of her stubbornness. The girl was taken before Paschasius, consul of Sicily, having been accused by her betrothed of practicing Christianity. She bravely spoke truth to the consul: her body was a temple to the Holy Spirit, she declared, it could not be defiled. To test this proposition, Paschasius ordered that she be taken from his court to a brothel, there to be offered freely to all the men of Syracuse. Yet when his henchmen attempted to carry her away, she had become so heavy that they could not lift her, or even drag her one inch. Then came the escalating attempts to move her: ten men, twenty men, pushed her from one direction and pulled her from another. Ropes were tied around her waist so that a hundred men might tug at her, to no effect. Trajan’s column would have toppled more easily. Magicians were called in, their herbs proved impotent and their incantations embarrassing. Soldiers pried her feet with iron bars. They set her skirts aflame, but she was so deep in prayer she did not notice. Fearing the palace would burn, they pissed out the fire. Finally an entire herd of oxen was brought in and yoked to the ropes around her waist. She held them like an anchor, and the maddened bulls raced around her, tearing up the consul’s palace, until they knocked at the pillars and the courtroom collapsed around Lucy, like the temple of the Philistines around Samson.
But Lucy was light; glancingly, beamingly so. In The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine assures us that Lucy was light in all ways: fair, bright-minded, facile in friendship, yielding of all worldly things. The properties of light and the qualities of lightness met in her. She might be stalwart enough to anchor a herd of oxen, but she held things givingly, as sunlight does: illuminating all, possessing nothing.
It is extraordinary then that the second, more famous legend of Lucy’s eyes does not appear The Golden Legend. It comes later, a Renaissance invention. As she stood before Paschasius, the girl’s beauty awakened the consul’s lust, and he attempted to win her for himself. When he complimented her eyes, she responded with a curt “Here—take them!” and plucked them from her head and handed them over nonchalantly, as if they were costume jewelry. Now she was blind, but not for long. As a salamander regenerates its tail, Lucy’s eyes grew back at once, in a new, more lucid shade. This gesture (it is presumed) put off the consul’s lust and set Lucy’s trials in motion.
Tellingly, this legend first appears not in written vitae but in paintings. It is a painter’s story, and the most famous images of the saint portray her with her plucked eyes lying like lychees on a plate (or, in an ingenious variation by Francesco del Cossa, sprouting and peering heavenward like two apple blossoms from a sprig). Lucy is thought to protect painters, to protect their eyes especially. Why? Because, being the site where light and flesh comingle, eyes are quite literally translucent. And because a great painter is one who gives you her eyes. Lucy is the saint who assures the painter: give of your eyes, they will grow back, like the little flame of the salamander’s tail.
Four Crowned Martyrs
Once, late in the third century, or perhaps early in the fourth, the Archangel Raphaello appeared to Pope Melchiades, radiating like a supernova. The vision was so blinding that Melchiades could not look upon the angel directly, but had to peep at him though a slit in a sheet of parchment. Raphaello had appeared in order to right a wrong: there were four Christian princes who had died, some years before, having been executed by the Emperor Diocletian. But the execution had been concealed and their names had gone unrecorded. The angel said unto the bishop: “I will now tell you the names of the Four Crowned Martyrs, so that they shall never be forgotten! They were: Castorius, Carpoforius, Claudius, and Melchiades.”
“Most sacred messenger!” cried the holy bishop, “How extraordinary that one of these martyrs should have shared my name!”
“Oh!” replied the archangel, blushing, “I meant Nicostradus. The fourth martyr was not Melchiades. Of course, that’s you isn’t it? No, no, it was Nicostradus.”
Melchiades canonized the four martyrs on the spot, established their cult, and decreed that a basilica should be built in their names.
Then, just a few years later, when the foundations of the church had only been laid, a cardinal named Claudius was visited at the Roman See by the Angel Godfrey, who appeared to him in a roiling nimbus. The angel was so bright that the cardinal had to put on tinted spectacles to keep from being blinded. Godfrey explained his purpose: due to a clerical error, the identities of the Four Crowned Martyrs had been confused with a group of four Roman soldiers who had been put to death by the emperor at around the same time. He went on to clarify that there were in fact Five Crowned Martyrs, and that they had not been princes, but sculptors who had refused to create false idols for the emperor, and were therefore beaten to death by lead ingots. So, the angel decreed, their attributes should be thereafter recognized as: crowns, mallets, chisels, and lead truncheons. “I shall now tell you the name of the Five Crowned Martyrs,” said the Angel with great pomp, “So that they will never be forgotten. They were: Severus, Severianus, Simplicius, Symphorian, and Godfrey.”
“Holy Messenger!” said the cardinal with astonishment, “Is not Godfrey your own name? How extraordinary…”
“I meant Victorinus,” pronounced the angel testily, “The fifth martyr was Victorinus!” Then he receded in haste, dragging a long white cirrus cloud behind him like a bridal train.
Some years later, when the Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati (as it is called today) was half built, a scribe named Simplicius was visited by the Angel Symphorian, who appeared to him in a burst of glitter, as if shot from a glitter cannon. “Sorry!” pronounced the angel, “Sorry for the inconvenience, there’s been a mix-up.” Symphorian went on to explain that there had not been five crowned martyrs, or even four, but merely three. And they had not been from Rome at all, but from the northern city of Pannonia. Furthermore (he decreed) they had not been beaten to death with lead ingots, but locked while still alive in lead coffins and thrown into the Danube. What’s more they had never been crowned: their martyrdom was their metaphorical crown. (Humans, the angel griped, could be so literal!) So the saint’s attributes had to be re-cataloged thus: no crowns, no lead clubs, but mallets, chisels, and lead coffins. Then Symphorian pronounced with spellbinding augury: “I shall now tell you the names of the Three Uncrowned Martyrs, so that they shall not have died in vain. They were: Victorinus, Nicostradus, Nicomedia, and Nanni di Banco.”
“I beg your pardon, awesome messenger!” replied the scribe, meekly, “But did you not say there were only three martyrs, and then give four names?”
“Oh yes,” said the angel, rubbing his forehead, “You know what? Forget that last one…he comes later.”
Years passed, and the entire basilica was built, before the day when a humble Vatican clerk named Porphyrius was in the Office of the Magisterium, trying to disentangle some of the more confusing records on the lives of the saints. As he was doing so, an angel blasted into the room, holding a flaming magenta road flare in each hand, crying “Behold!” (and so forth) and promising to straighten out the whole business about the mismatched set of crowned or uncrowned saints. He explained that the confusion had to do with the saints’ feast day, and the fact that there were no fewer than eleven martyrs who shared the same feast day (November 8th), including the Roman soldiers Severus, Severianus, Carpoforius, and Victorinus; the Pannonian sculptors Claudius, Castorius, Symphorian, Simplicius, and Nicostratus; and of course the two Gallic martyrs both named Godfrey, who anyway would not be born for another thousand years.
From this information, poor overwhelmed Porphyrius gleaned the following: There were only two crowned martyrs, neither of whom wore crowns: a Roman soldier named Severus Severianus Carpoforius Victorinus, and a Pannonian sculptor named Claudius Castorius Symphorian Simplicius Nicostratus. But since neither of these saints would live for another thousand years, they more or less, and for all practical purposes, amounted to no crowned martyrs at all. So: what to tell the folks down at the basilica?
“Four Crowned Martyrs” it stayed. And to this day, the cult of the four-to-nine soldier-sculptors is going strong. Devotees may honor their feast day by wearing a crown, or going bare-headed, or playing pitch-the-chisel, or donning an Attic helmet and lying for hours in a sensory deprivation tank. Their basilica is still a popular pilgrimage site, possibly for the very ambiguity upon which it is founded, grounding the cult in the knowledge that, in their myriad ambivalences (Were they four or five, or nine or none? Were they artists or princes or soldiers? Crowned with gold, or sunk in lead? Were they anonymous as atoms, or buried under grossly compounded names? Did they ever live, or have they yet to?), these martyrs are just like you and me.
Christopher Tradowsky lives in Saint Paul, where he writes stories and makes visual art. He has a PhD in Art History from UCLA, and teaches at St Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is the winner of the 2014 Bloom chapbook contest for fiction. His stories have appeared previously in Bloom, The Cossack Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, The Battered Suitcase, and Spontaneous Combustion. His criticism has appeared in the CAA Art Journal. You can see more of his visual work and read more at www.christophertradowsky.com.