The Nun II: The Real History and Legend of St. Lucy

The Conjuring Cinematic Universe expands into the early days of Christianity as The Nun II ties into the real history of St. Lucy.

Taissa Farmiga as nun in The Nun 2
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

This article contains major The Nun II spoilers.

Since its inception, the Conjuring franchise has been built and marketed around the creepy sales pitch that these movies are “based on a true story.” It worked particularly well with the first couple of films directed by James Wan, with each film inspired (liberally) by the case files of supposed demonic possession and hauntings gathered by Ed and Lorraine Warren, two real-life and self-proclaimed investigators of the paranormal.

As the franchise expanded though, with spinoff films where a doll summons up a werewolf in Annabelle Comes Home and a demonic entity wipes out an entire castle full of holy sisters in The Nun, the assertion that these are true stories have grown thinner and ever more incredulous. So when The Nun II revealed that arguably the entire Conjuring Cinematic Universe has grown out of one demon’s search for the eyes of St. Lucy, we wouldn’t blame any viewer for dismissing this as yet another complete fiction by the filmmakers.

However, St. Lucy (also known as St. Lucia) was real—at least according to the Catholic canon of saints and orthodoxy the Conjuring movies frequently rely on. And while, as far as we know, the plights of everything from the Enfield Poltergeist to the haunting of Amityville cannot be traced to a single demon’s pursuit of optical nerves removed from Lucy’s countenance, since at least the Middle Ages, the eyes of this martyred young woman have been glorified and romanticized by Christian faithful.

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Why Was Lucy ‘Murdered by Pagans’

In The Nun II, the heroine Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) and a Vatican librarian/priest rather remarkably deduce in a handful of minutes that the demon Valak is after the eyes of St. Lucy of Syracuse, who the priest tells an audience surrogate “was murdered by pagans.” While Lucy/Lucia died, her family survived and was scattered across Europe, “hiding” from those no-good pagans. The film goes on to heavily suggest Sister Irene and even Lorraine Warren (played by Taissa’s real-life sister Vera Farmiga) are the direct descendants of St. Lucy.

This last bit is particularly incredible since St. Lucy is worshiped in the Catholic Church as one of the virgin martyrs, and various accounts of her real-life history do not speak of her having siblings.

With that said, it should be noted the actual historical personage of Lucia of Syracuse has been debated, with scholars suggesting her plight and death was a Christian romance created or embellished by the early Catholic Church as Christianity assumed its role as the religion of Rome. In other words, this might be based on accounts that literally made a martyr out of a specific individual. The first written account of her story comes from the fifth century in Acts of the Martyrs, about a hundred years after her death, and is largely a hagiographic and probably apocryphal work. 

However, archaeological evidence has proven there was a cult of worship built around Lucia of Syracuse in Sicily during the fourth century, suggesting some elements of her story likely occurred. Body parts were even later claimed to be her remains, and thus holy relics of St. Lucy were, indeed, scattered across Europe.

What is claimed about the real Lucia is that she was born in 283 A.D. when Syracuse was part of the Roman Empire. The daughter of rich and, in her father’s case, possibly patrician parents, she was of Roman and Greek heritage. Tradition also suggests the family was already Christian before Lucia’s birth, which means their status would have been precarious no matter what, albeit Lucia’s reported piety and zeal caused her to be among the earliest non-clergy and non-military martyrs killed during the Diocletianic Persecution—the last great persecution sanctioned by the Roman government before Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. paved the way for Christian hegemony.

The Diocletianic Persecution was so-named because it began under the rule of the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius in 303 A.D., a year before Lucia’s death. Before Diocletian’s reign, Christianity had been on shaky ground in the empire. Many of the earliest martyrs in antiquity were killed by mobs (as The Nun II’s vague description of St. Lucy suggests), and in the second and third centuries A.D., the Roman government took a more proactive hand in rooting out what was viewed as a subversive element that refused to participate in public life or celebrate the same religious festivals and traditions as the majority. When Diocletian became emperor in 284 A.D., it was in the midst of a period called “the little peace of the Church” among Christians, because for about 40 years, Christianity was openly tolerated.

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That ended in 303 A.D. when, already extremely religious and intolerant, Diocletian was convinced by his co-emperor Galerius to officially persecute Christians again. Initially, Diocletian wanted to simply purge Christians out of the military and government, but Galerius appealed to an oracle of Apollo at Didyma (modern day Turkey), and the oracle’s vision was interpreted to mean “kill them all.” Although, against Galerius’ wishes, Diocletian initially did not order that all Christians be killed (that came later), he just allowed his subordinates to do exactly that while carrying out the persecution.

The First Edict of persecution, delivered on Feb. 23, 303, ordered Christian church properties and treasures seized, churches burned, and further assembly of Christian worship outlawed. All members of clergy were arrested, Christian soldiers and senators were deprived of their ranks and pensions (while all soldiers were asked to prove their devotion by sacrificing animals to the Roman pantheon of gods), Christians slaves who had been freed were re-enslaved, and all Christians were deprived the ability to petition the court. Greek historian Eusebius of Caesarea (modern day Israel) tells us the prisons of Palestine were so overfilled with priests that other prisoners were released to make room. Burning Christians at the stake became popular in the eastern provinces of the empire.

This historical context is where the story of St. Lucy comes into focus in 304. According to legend, Lucia’s mother betrothed her to a rich young suitor whose family kept the pagan gods of Jupiter and the empire. However, her mother never asked Lucia about her plans on the matter, because the daughter had apparently in secret vowed a life of celibacy in honor of God. Nonetheless, mother and daughter made a pilgrimage together to Catania where they visited the site of St. Agatha’s martyrdom. Agatha had been murdered half a century earlier during the last great persecution of Christians by the Roman state. St. Agatha allegedly came now in a vision to Lucia, informing her that she would bring glory to Syracuse as Agatha had to Catania, which is an awfully gentle way to say you’re going to die young and horifically.

While in Catania, Lucia convinced her mother to donate her daughter’s dowry, as well as much of the family fortune and jewels, to the poor and destitute, as opposed to saving it for either Lucia’s marriage or either of their comfort. When news of this great act of charity reached her betrothed, the pagan young man was outraged at the loss of expected income from the marriage. So he denounced Lucia as a Christian to Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse.

The Roman government subsequently demanded Lucia burn a sacrifice to honor Emperor Diocletian’s image and implicit divinity. They were asking her to apostatize her faith. Lucia refused. Catholic dogma claims Paschasius then ordered Lucia to be condemned to a brothel where she would live her days as a concubine. However, when the Roman guards attempted to force Lucia from her home, legend has it that her feet would not budge, even when she was tied to oxen.

So the Roman governor tried to at last burn her alive instead. And yet, the fire likewise would not harm her despite the flames licking at her feet from bundles of wood (presumably this is why Sister Irene is immune to fire in The Nun II). Finally, a soldier stabbed Lucia in the throat, taking her life and martyring her in the eyes of angels, gospels, and church texts.

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What Happened to Lucy’s Eyes?

But what of the eyes, the eyes which The Nun II insists are so powerful that the demon Valak has been hunting them for millennia? Well… they probably decayed with the rest of her body in the grave.

While archaeological evidence confirms a cult of worship around Lucia of Syracuse rose up in her homeland in the decades following her death, and Christian literature from a century later informs the story above, the legend of Lucia’s sacred, lost eyes did not appear until the end of the Middle Ages, potentially as late as the 15th century (so more than a thousand years after the fact). These traditions suggest that during her torture and tribulations in public, the Roman Governor Paschasius sensed the gathering crowd was sympathizing too much with the beautiful young girl, so he ordered her eyes be gouged out. Even with the pupils plucked and blood streaming down her cheeks, she stood defiant and predicted the persecution would soon end, the emperor would soon die, and Paschasius would lose his position. At which point, Paschasius ordered she be stabbed in the throat.

Yet other versions suggest it was her predicting Paschasius and the emperor’s downfall that caused her eyes to be gouged out as a vindictive punishment, and yet others suggest she cut her own eyes out so she would not have to look at her pagan suitor. She only had eyes for Jesus.

These various stories might be as truthful about real events as The Nun II, but the eyes of St. Lucy are still venerated in the church with accounts suggesting when her body was first recovered centuries after her death, ahead of it being scattered to churches across Europe in the form of various relics, her eyes supposedly were restored in perfect condition to her face, which also had not faded to bone. Make of that what you will.