School of Francisco de Zurbarán (Fuente de Cantos, Spain 1598 – Madrid, Spain 1664), Saint Eulalia, 1640-50, 173 cm x 103 cm, oil on canvas, Seville, Spain, Museum of Fine Arts.
10 December, Memory of Saint Eulalia.
Let's start by reading some of the verses that a modern poet, Federico García Lorca, dedicated to the most famous saint in Spain, the martyr Eulalia. They are taken from one of the 18 "Romances" that constitute his most important poetic collection, Romancero gitano (Gypsy Ballads), published in 1928.
[…] The holy girl, groaning,
breaks crystal goblets.
A wheel grinds the knives
and sharp curving hooks.
The anvil’s bull bellows,
and Mérida is crowned
with half-awake lilies
and briars of bramble. […]
A peal streaks out
over burned-out skies
between the throats of streams
and of nightingales on the boughs.
Stained glass leaps up!
Eulalia, white upon white.
Angels and seraphs
cry: Holy, Holy, Holy.
It took a Spaniard, a poet like García Lorca, to speak with moved affection of the most moving Saint of Spain, the tender flower of Mérida: a white flower stained with red; white with innocence and red with blood.
Eulalia, the "holy girl," was of a noble Christian family. She lived between the third and fourth centuries and, to escape the persecution against Christians that broke out throughout the empire at the time of Diocletian, she had been hidden by her relatives in a country house, away from the city and the dangers of persecution.
But the Christian girl did not accept that fearful security. She ran away, went through the frozen countryside barefoot and, torn apart by the bitter cold, came to the city and presented herself to the court. Before governor Daciano, she professed her Christian faith. This cost her immediate judgment and subsequent condemnation.
The tradition goes that the Spanish adolescent was subjected to a series of 13 cruel tortures, one for each of her years. Her young, bruised by the cold body was torn apart with irons and hooks. Her chest and hips were mutilated and nagged, her limbs, cut off. Streams of blood ran on her white skin. The martyrdom of Saint Eulalia occurred in Mérida, Spain, during the persecution of Diocletian, in the winter of 304.
It is not surprising that the story of her martyrdom has had an enormous spread throughout Spain and beyond (St. Augustine himself dedicated a homily to her, and she is depicted in the theory of the Virgin Saints in the nave of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna) and that it has inspired generations of poets, since a very old age to these days.
If we look at the beautiful painting by the school of the great Spanish painter of the seventeenth century, we can not help but notice the beauty and elegance of the saint, who is portrayed not in the moment of martyrdom but in the magnificence of a life that has been restored. The lit candle she holds in her right hand seems to allude to the light of faith she has kept intact in her persecution, but it also reminds us of the lamps the prudent virgins of the Gospel parable kept lit (cf. Mt 25:1-13). The great book she holds in her left hand can certainly be a Gospel, but it could also refer to the culture of the young woman (the name Eulalia derives in fact from the Greek and means "she who speaks well"). Even the habit has nothing to do with the nakedness to which she was subjected during the tortures she suffered; there is no trace of violence in her face, because the painter wanted to show us to the young Eulalia already in her holiness: a life that was transformed by her testimony and that was fully redeemed by Christ, to whom she remained faithful until she gave her life.