115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

O Lady of Power: Dante's St. Lucia at War

Catherine Whittinghill Illingworth, UCLA

Of the three holy women who initiate the action of the Divine Comedy, Beatrice and Mary have been thoroughly investigated while St. Lucia remains mostly unmentioned.  This paper examines Lucia’s connection to classical female warriors, her distinction as a combatant against evil, and her leadership of the Church Militant in spiritual warfare. 


            The Divine Comedy contains several notable examples in which masculine characters like Virgil, the great poet lauded for his song of war, are compared to mothers and wet-nurses.  Scholarship has largely interpreted these instances as Dante’s effort to make Virgil his ilk seem more familiar, loving, and humble.  Such a reading implies that gentle and nurturing feminine qualities are applied merely to abate masculine brutality which disregards the depth, complexity, and nuance of Dante’s feminine.  Virgil’s mother comparisons signify far more than a comforting bedside manner; they include him in the most important and holy work in God’s universe which is the salvation of souls.   

            Dante’s resistance to passive, submissive, or invisible femininity is clearly apparent in the three holy women who initiate Dante’s journey; his marvelous maternal and erotic images in Mary and Beatrice have been thoroughly explored, but St. Lucia, the third holy woman, has been almost entirely neglected.  Her association with martial imagery, particularly Cammilla, the virgin warrior from the Aeneid, makes her a representative of the medieval Church Militant and its role in combating evil on earth.  Dante presents in Lucia a female warrior-figure; this vital third element bestows perfect completeness upon the female Holy Trinity in the poem, a counterpart to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the powerful mediatrix that enables eternal peace. 

            This characterization of Lucia hinges upon on the dream of the eagle in Purgatorio X, wherein Dante experiences a vision of a golden eagle that seizes him and flies him into a holy flame.  This vision conflates the Pauline vision of heaven, Jacob’s dream of the ladder, and biblical images of eagles, which are at once nurturing protectors and terrifying weapons of war, just like Dante’s Lucia.  The poem’s final depiction of the Trinity endeavors to depict in writing the beatific vision that even Paul did not describe, interrogating sight, blindness, speech, and silence as the capabilities upon which depends the transmission of the content of spiritual visions.