On an unknown date about the spring of 316 BCE, Alexander the Great’s snake-worshipping mother Olympias surrendered to the siege of the former regent’s ambitious son — whereupon she was put to summary death.
Olympias was famed for her snake-handlin: Plutarch says that Philip’s interest in her waned when he beheld “a serpent … lying stretched out by the side of Olympias as she slept,” which led him to fear “that she was the partner of a superior being.” Sigmund Freud, eat your heart out.
Sired by the gods or no, Olympias’s son certainly outstripped his father — but once Alexander’s coruscating star burned itself out, Olympias had another kind of snakepit to contend with: the conqueror’s former generals jockeying for preeminence in their engorged empire.
The patina of dynastic legitimacy Olympias maintained as Alexander’s kin was not sufficient to prevent the situation collapsing into war; indeed, we have met this this civil strife previously in these pages, when Olympias had the upper hand in a battle in 317 BCE and ordered the execution of Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother. Olympias gets her share of stick as old time Macedonia’s deadly ophiomormous femme fatale, but this was cruelty with a purpose: the addled king was the catspaw in whose name her foe Cassander (as his father Antipater before him) claimed power as “regent”.
Cassander, a mate of Alexander dating back to their Aristotle study group days, was not captured in this affair, nor was he driven from the field by it. Soon thereafter he turned the tables and trapped Olympias in Pydna, where she was obliged to surrender to his discretion. That same logic of murder in statecraft turned now against the queen. First century (BCE) Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:
Although Cassander had shut Olympias into Pydna in Macedonia, he was not able to assault the walls because of the winter storms, but by encamping about the city, throwing up a palisade from sea to sea, and blockading the port, he prevented any who might wish to aid the queen from doing so. And as supplies were rapidly exhausted, he created such famine among those within that they were completely incapacitated. In truth, they were brought to such extreme need that they gave each soldier five choenices of grain per month, sawed up wood and fed the sawdust to the imprisoned elephants, and slaughtered the pack animals and horses for food. While the situation of the city was so serious and while Olympias was still clinging to hopes of rescue from outside, the elephants died from lack of nourishment, the horsemen that were not in the ranks and did not receive any food whatever nearly all perished, and no small number of the soldiers also met the same fate. Some of the non-Greeks, their natural needs overcoming their scruples, found flesh to eat by collecting the bodies of the dead. Since the city was being quickly filled with corpses, those in charge of the queen’s company, though they buried some of the bodies, threw others over the city wall. The sight of these was horrible, and their stench was unbearable, not merely to ladies who were of the queen’s court and addicted to luxury, but also to those of the soldiers who were habituated to hardship.
As spring came on and their want increased from day to day, many of the soldiers gathered together and appealed to Olympias to let them go because of the lack of supplies. Since she could neither issue any food at all nor break the siege, she permitted them to withdraw. Cassander, after welcoming all the deserters and treating them in most friendly fashion, sent them to the various cities; for he hoped that when the Macedonians learned from them how weak Olympias was, they would despair of her cause. And he was not mistaken in his surmise about what would happen: those who had resolved to fight on the side of the besieged forces changed their minds and went over to Cassander; and the only men in Macedonia to preserve their loyalty were Aristonoüs and Monimus, of whom Aristonoüs was ruler of Amphipolis and Monimus of Pella. But Olympias, when she saw that most of her friends had gone over to Cassander and that those who remained were not strong enough to come to her aid, attempted to launch a quinquereme and by this means to save herself and her friends. When, however, a deserter brought news of this attempt to the enemy and Cassander sailed up and took the ship, Olympias, recognizing that her situation was beyond hope, sent envoys to treat of terms. When Cassander gave his opinion that she must put all her interests into his hands, she with difficulty persuaded him to grant the single exception that he guarantee her personal safety. As soon as he had gained possession of the city, he sent men to take over Pella and Amphipolis. Now Monimus, the ruler of Pella, on hearing the fate of Olympias, surrendered his city; but Aristonoüs at first was minded to cling to his position … [until] Olympias wrote to him demanding his loyalty and ordering him to surrender, he perceived that it was necessary to do as ordered and delivered the city to Cassander, receiving pledges for his own safety.
Cassander, seeing that Aristonoüs was respected because of the preferment he had received from Alexander, and being anxious to put out of the way any who were able to lead a revolt, caused his death through the agency of the kinsfolk of Cratevas. He also urged the relatives of those whom Olympias had slain to accuse the aforesaid woman in the general assembly of the Macedonians. They did as he had ordered; and, although Olympias was not present and had none to speak in her defence, the Macedonians condemned her to death. Cassander, however, sent some of his friends to Olympias advising her to escape secretly, promising to provide a ship for her and to carry her to Athens. He acted thus, not for the purpose of securing her safety, but in order that she, condemning herself to exile and meeting death on the voyage, might seem to have met a punishment that was deserved; for he was acting with caution both because of her rank and because of the fickleness of the Macedonians. As Olympias, however, refused to flee but on the contrary was ready to be judged before all the Macedonians, Cassander, fearing that the crowd might change its mind if it heard the queen defend herself and was reminded of all the benefits conferred on the entire nation by Alexander and Philip, sent to her two hundred soldiers who were best fitted for such a task, ordering them to slay her as soon as possible. They, accordingly, broke into the royal house, but when they beheld Olympias, overawed by her exalted rank, they withdrew with their task unfulfilled. But the relatives of her victims, wishing to curry favour with Cassander as well as to avenge their dead, murdered the queen, who uttered no ignoble or womanish plea.
Such was the end of Olympias, who had attained to the highest dignity of the women of her day, having been daughter of Neoptolemus, king of the Epirotes, sister of the Alexander who made a campaign into Italy, and also wife of Philip, who was the mightiest of all who down to this time had ruled in Europe, and mother of Alexander, whose deeds were the greatest and most glorious.
Cassander would emerge from all this mess in a sturdy enough position to declare himself king. His sons, however, were unable to sustain the family in power and this particular general proved merely the precursor of a different general‘s more successful post-Alexander dynasty.
A monumental tomb recently discovered in the Kasta burial mound at Amphipolis — said to beggar the gorgeous Vergina tomb in scale and grandeur — has been speculatively associated with Olympias and/or Alexander. (“Hopefully” might be the better word, since the bare hint of such a link would be a boon for the tourism sector.) The site is still being excavated, and is not yet open to the public.
On this date in 1781, the Spanish social bandit Diego Corrientes Mateos was hanged and quartered in Seville.
A robber who plied the roads from Portugal to his native Seville, Corrientes (English Wikpedia entry | Spanish) was said to be of farmworker stock himself. His consequent good treatment of the rural common folk enabled him to operate with great freedom and situated him as a Robin Hood character; folklore has consequently inflated the valor of his exploits and the bile of Sheriff of Nottinghamesque pursuers like the lieutenant governor of Seville. For example, surprising his adversary on one occasion, Corrientes is supposed to have remarked, “I have learned that you boast you will be able to capture me.”
“Yes, and hang you,” shot back Francisco de Bruna.
“Then I must spare your life so you can fulfill your promise,” the sporting Corrietes allowed. (The reader will discern that Francisco de Bruna soon made good his threat.)
Masuccio’s tale is itself an Italian Renaissance gloss on an old Ovid story; its outline will be instantly recognizable to devotees of the Capulets and Montagues. But instead of dueling suicides, Masuccio ends one of the star-crossed lovers with an executioner’s blade.
In Mariotto and Ganozza, which can be enjoyed for free in the original Italian here or here, the young lovers secretly wed only to find “that wicked and hostile fortune reversed all their present and future desires.”
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder …
“Fortune’s” inscrutable hand turns out to be that of Mariotto himself, who gets into a fight with some other nobleman and, slaying him, must flee into exile. Posterity must excuse Mariotto/Romeo his hotheadedness, for were he not the type to wreck his own life by murdering a guy in a street fight he also wouldn’t be the type to pursue forbidden tragic romance. That’s art.
Fortune’s fool …
“How great was the supreme grief of the two most wretched lovers, so lately wed, and how bitter their tears at the thought of what they believed to be their endless separation, he alone who has been pricked by such wounds can truly tell.” (Translation source.)
“So deep and bitter it was, that at their last parting, they seemed for a long while to have died in each other’s arms.”
It next comes to pass that Gianozza’s father, ignorant of her secret marriage to the town fugitive, arranges a match for her. This development leads our Juliet figure to seek out the aid of the friar who has secretly wed them in a scheme that is precisely Shakespearean.
The friar “made up a certain water with certain concoctions of various powders that, when the draught was ready and she had drunk it, it would not only make her sleep for three days, but seem to be really dead.” With this potion they stage Gianozza’s death; then, the friar secretly steals her hibernating “corpse” from its tomb, revives her, and packs her off to find her beloved.
He, of course, has separately received word of Gianozza’s death — and (also of course) the courier that had been dispatched pre-death elixir to clue him into the plan has been waylaid by pirates and left his essential plot spoilers at the bottom of the sea.
Disconsolate, Mariotto returns to Siena with the unproductive object of mooning over Gianozza’s grave and “weep[ing] as if their lives were ended.” Don’t worry, he has a backup plan! “If by misfortune he was recognized, he thought he would gladly be condemned as a murderer, knowing that she was already dead whom he loved more than himself and who loved him with equal love.”
This works as well as you expect, albeit with less panache than Shakespeare’s crypt climax: Mariotto gets caught in a transport of the macabre trying to break into Gianozza’s sepulcher, and is recognized as a condemned outlaw.
Before dawn, all Siena was full of the news, which reached the ears of the Court, who ordered the mayor to go and arrest him and quickly do that which the laws and the State commanded.
So, a prisoner in fetters, Mariotto was led to the palace of the mayor. When he was flogged, without needing long tortures, he faithfully confessed the cause of his desperate return. Though all alike had the greatest pity for him, and amongst the women he was bitterly wept for and thought the only perfect lover in the world, and each of them would have willingly redeemed him with her own life, yet he was at once condemned by the law to be beheaded. When the time arrived, without his friends or parents being able to aid him, the sentence was carried out.
Three days later, Gianozza — having reached Mariotto’s former refuge of exile and there learned of his misapprehension — turns up in Siena again only to discover that she is too late. Rather than stabbing herself to death right then and there as the Bard’s heroine would do, she shuts herself up in a convent “with intense grief and tears of blood and little food and no sleep, continually calling for her dear Mariotto, [and] in a very short time ended her wretched days.”
On this date in 1868,* eleven samurai committed seppuku before the French consul in Japan spared their nine comrades.
The affair was stunning punishment for what’s known as the Sakai Incident — an offense eight days prior that occurred during Japan’s Boshin War, a last rearguard battle of loyalists to the (now officially ended) Tokugawa Shogunate against the rising imperial party of the Meiji Restoration.
What’s noteworthy for our purposes in this period is that the Meiji espoused an anti-foreigner policy — one that was not the less intently felt by the Meiji base for being entirely insincere on the part of elites.
It was in this tense context that a boat full of French sailors from the corvette Dupleix called on March 8 at Sakai — a port city whose shogunate forces had routed. It had been recently occupied by imperial troops.
Japan had only been opened to the west 15 years before, and access was still quite restricted; there might have been a misunderstanding between the French sailors and Sakai’s Tosa clan occupiers over whether this city was open at all. There was definitely a misunderstanding once the tourists ran into samurai on shore, and before you know it high words and suspicious glares turned into a street skirmish that left eleven Frenchmen dead.
Illustration from Le Monde Diplomatique (1868)
This Sakai Incident (English Wikipedia entry | French) incensed western powers, and not only the French: the British, Dutch, Prussians, Italians, and Americans all pulled down their embassy colors in solidarity pending adequate satisfaction for the French. Japan at this moment was not at all in a position to take a stand against foreign gunships over this dust-up, and it met the conditions — which consisted of some personal groveling by a state minister, the payment of a 150,000-piastres indemnity, and the execution of the officers and soldiers involed. The punishment would be self-administered by seppuku at a Sakai shrine. This set the scene for a powerful climax, in which the soldiers one by one tore out their own guts in a ceremony that must have played as defiance no less than submission.
Quoting the Moniteur, the London Morning Post of May 19, 1868 (news was slow in those days) describes the operatic punishment.
On the 15th [a Japanese] high functionary brought a written reply from his Government conceding all the satisfaction required. On the following day Captain du Petit-Thouars, commander of the Dupleix, landed at Sakai to witness the execution of two officers, a subaltern, and 17 Japanese soldiers, condemned to death as the principal authors of the aggression. The two chiefs were the first put to death, after which nine others perished successively. Captain du Petit-Thouars then seeing that the Japanese Government was decided on carrying out its engagements to the end, and ceding to a feeling of humanity, stayed the execution, declaring that he considered the reparation sufficient, and that he proposed to ask the Minister of France to intercede for a commutation of punishment in favour of the other condemned.
The last nine beneficiaries of the captain’s clemency were sent into internal exile instead.
On this date in 1926, Weimar Germany beheaded Josef Jakubowski for a murder he did not commit. Though a notorious miscarriage of justice in Germany, it is not widely known elsewhere and most of the links about Jakubowski are in Germany.
A Pole reared in the tsar’s Lithuania, Jakubowski emigrated by way of that great ravager of imperial borders, the First World War: taken as a POW, he preferred sticking around as a Mecklenburg farmhand over returning to a now-Bolshevik Russia engulfed in civil war.
Jakubowski never married, but if he had done it would have been to Ina Nogens, a local woman with whom he fathered a daughter out of wedlock. But his lover died (in non-suspicious circumstances) leaving Jakubowski to support not only the infant girl but also Ina’s three-year-old son by another man, Ewald — who were nonetheless being raised not by Jakubowski but by the Nogens relatives.
On November 9, 1924, Ewald disappeared: he was found outside the village the next day, strangled to death.
The Nogens family immediately made known their suspicions of the almost in-law from a foreign land, and in no time at all Jakubowski was caught in that still-familiar gaze of official tunnel vision and its mirrors of endlessly receding self-vindication. The most substantial evidence against Jakubowski was the shaky — and in fact, manipulated — eyewitness report of a mentally impaired teenager made to sort of put the Pole on the path to the Nogens house on the morning of the little boy’s disappearance. That’s it. It’s the sort of case would have to level up several times to achieve the stature of laughability, but when everyone already knows you did it, actual evidence is really just a luxury. Jakubowski was an outsider who maybe wanted to stop paying child support. Work backward from there!
Two years after the luckless migrant lost his head to the fallbeil, it came out that some of the Nogens clan were the ones really behind the murder, a two birds, one stone scheme to take off their hands both bastard whelp and Auslander. Three were judicially convicted of the very same murder, and one, Ina’s brother August, was actually sentenced to death — although the sentence was remitted. Despite issuing these other convictions, no German state organ has ever officially reversed Jakubowski’s condemnation.
On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.
Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.
A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”
But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**
Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.
His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.
* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.
** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.
† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.
Jacob Bonfadius, a man otherwise not in the last place among the erudite, because of copulation with boys (a most vile and sordid thing), was beheaded in prison and publically burned. The French Dominique Phinot, a distinguished musician, was also killed in the same way for a very similar folly.
This throwaway remark by the Italian Renaissance man Cardano is our only clue to the fate — indeed, to the very biography — of the composer Dominique Phinot. Based on the volume’s publication in 1561, it is thought that Phinot suffered for his folly around 1557-1560. We don’t even know the place.
Whatever damnatio memoriae obscured him in death, Phinot (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a prominent and highly regarded musician in his working life, acclaimed an expert in polychoral motets. Some 90 exemplars, and dozens of other compositions, survive; the 17th century Italian musicologist Pietro Cerone credited Phinot’s innovations with opening the way for Palestrina.
He emerges for posterity through those compositions; the earliest surviving date to 1538 and his publication locales (and the powerful men to whom they were dedicated) suggest a man for whom patrons in northern Italy (and across the Alps in Lyons) eagerly competed in the 1540s and 1550s. It is known that Phinot was retained by the Duke of Urbino for a period.
It is surely topical to notice that our correspondent Cardano was himself widely whispered to enjoy the same folly, too: a Venetian whose deep interest in music led him to “adopt” into his wifeless** household a number of boys with musical gifts, Cardano could hardly fail to court suspicion. “The rumor was being circulated everywhere that I was using my boys for immoral purposes,” Cardano reports autobiographically of one instance where he was threatened with exposure. Cardano appears never to have been formally charged as a sodomite, but it is remarkable — and even, he admits, “foolishness” — that his brushes with danger never caused him to reconsider the boy-keeping policy.†
As a proper Renaissance man, Cardano’s interests stretched far beyond pederasty and a good tune. He was, in the backhanded compliment of Sir Thomas Browne, “a great Enquirer of Truth, but too greedy a Receiver of it” and treatised profusely on philosophy, law, geology, astronomy, pedagogy, medicine, and mathematics. The latter two fields brought him his fame, but his musings flashed intermittent prescience across disciplines. Cardano argued for the full mental capacity of the deaf, and correctly inferred that mountains had once been underwater from the presence of seashell fossils upon them. A cryptographic technique, a puzzle, and a gear mechanism all bear the Cardano name. His mathematician’s sure grasp on probability also made him a deft gambler — and he published yet another volume on this subject as a young man.
Cardano the physician’s most famous patient was the Archbishop of St. Andrews, whom Cardano in 1553 cured of a debilitating asthma that had stricken the prelate speechless and was thought untreatable by contemporaries. Thanks to Cardano, Archbishop Hamilton became spry enough to get hanged for murder in 1571.
Yet Cardano the man had a still closer acquaintance with the executioner’s office through the person of his firstborn son … a topic for another day’s post.
* Opera Omnia, vol. 2, p. 354 (Theonoston seu de tranquilitate) Translation via Clement Miller in “Jerome Cardan on Gombert, Phinot, and Carpentras,” The Musical Quarterly, July 1972. The aforementioned Gombert was another composer who got busted for same-sex contact; he caught a term in the galleys.
** Cardano’s wife Lucia died in 1546.
† For more see Guido Giglioni, “Musicus Puer. A note on Cardano’s household and the dangers of music,” Bruniana & Campanelliana, vol. 11, no. 1 (2005).
On Christmas Day of 1553, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, noted as the founder of Santiago, Chile,* was executed by Mapuche Indians who had captured him in battle.
Valdivia got his start in New World bloodsport in the train of the Pizarro brothers, and cashed in with mining concessions as a reward for his able service in the Pizarros’ campaign against yet another conquistador, Diego de Almagro.
Not content to wax fat on Incan silver, Valdivia secured permission to pick up Almagro’s aborted mission: the conquest of Chile. With a force of about 150 Spaniards and many times that number of native allies, he successfully crossed the Atacama desert (bypassing Andean tribes that had proven hostile to Almagro) and attained the Mapocho river valley. There he created Santiago** on February 12, 1541, and almost immediately established the Spanish colony — distinct from Peru — whose headquarters it would be.
It didn’t take long for these interlopers to incur native resistance which would long slow the imperial development of Chile. Later in 1541, an Indian attack raze Santiago, although its Spanish defenders just managed to hold on to the rubble and begin a laborious process of vigilant rebuilding.
While the future metropolis, which lies about the north-south midpoint of the present-day state, grew stone by stone, Valdivia endeavored to carry his conquest to the south. This would soon provoke the furious resistance of the Mapuche people and become the Arauco War, which simmered for decades. (Or centuries, depending on the degree of continuity one might attribute to various rebellions.)
Having seen the Spanish throw up a chain of forts in their territory the better to control new gold mines, the Mapuche counterattacked and overran the fort at Tucapel — led by a bold young commander named Lautaro, who had only recently fled from the personal service of Valdivia himself. Grievously underestimating the vigor of his foe, Valdivia set out to pacify the rebels with a mere 40 Spanish soldiers “because at that time the Indians were but lightly esteemed.” (Marmolejo; see below) Approaching an eerily empty Fort Tucapel on Christmas Day, his token force was suddenly engulfed by thousands of ambushing Mapuche and massacred to a man.
Almost to a man.
Valdivia had the misfortune of being taken alive.
The conquistador was put to death shortly after the battle. The chronicler Jeronimo de Vivar simply said that the commander Caupolican ordered him speared to death — but others went in for more frightful descriptions of an event they surely did not witness.
Alonso de Gongora Marmolejo, who like Vivar was a contemporary to the death of the governor, claimed (Spanish link) that “the Indians kindled a fire before him, and cut off his arms from the elbow to the wrist with their blades; they took care not to permit him his death, and so devoured his roasted flash before his eyes.”
As a founding figure in Chilean history, Valdivia has enjoyed frequent literary treatment, as has his impressive mistress Ines de Suarez. (Isabel Allende’s Ines of my Soul is a recent example.) It is likely that none will ever surpass in literary importance the 16th century epic of of the conquest of Chile La Araucana. Although its author, Alonso de Ercilla, did not sail for America until several years after Valdivia’s death, he — naturally — made the late conqueror one of his principal subjects.
Today is the feast of Saint Lucy, a Diocletian martyr and one of Christendom’s best beloved saints.
As her Wikipedia page observes, “all the details of her life are the conventional ones associated with female martyrs of the early 4th century.” Like St. Barbara she had secretly become a Christian; like St. Cecilia, she was betrothed to a mean old pagan; like St. Catherine her sacred body defied the tortures ordered by the Governor of Syracuse, until the Romans just gave up and beheaded her. (Her husband is supposed to have denounced her when he found out that the pious Lucy, with the help of an apparition of the martyred St. Agatha, had convinced her mother to give away the daughter’s ample dowry; this embrace of lonely penury probably explains how she came to be the patron saint of writers.)
Iconography often depicts St. Lucy brandishing her own eyeballs, like a Guillermo del Toro monster: this, too, is an allusion to the torments of the Romans, and the story is either the cause or the consequence of her patronage of the blind.
Lucy’s name derives from the Latin root for “light”, and her December 13 feast formerly coincided with the winter solstice; as a result, St. Lucy’s Day became a major holiday some locales — including Italy, Scandinavia, the Philippines, and Omaha, Nebraska. The English poet John Donne meditates upon the occasion in a 1627 noctural, by which time December 13 was not technically the solstice by either Julian or Gregorian calendars.
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.
Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.
Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.
The great Russian artist Ilya Repin dramatically depicted the scene.
St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).
Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)
Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**
Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.
* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).