Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Saint Margaret of Antioch
A friend sent me this painting of Saint Margaret of Antioch and asked me to write about it, and also had this to say: "I love everything about it, from her braided handbag to her hat and clothes, to the fact that she is holding her place in her book with her finger, to the fact that she's barefoot, to the fact that she seems completely nonplussed by the dragon at her feet. In fact, in this image, I think that the dragon looks much more like a wild but tamed/submissive pet; not in any danger of devouring Saint Margaret."
Saint Margaret of Antioch is the patron saint of childbirth, pregnant women, falsely accused people, dying people, peasants, and exiles. Hers was one of the earliest voices heard by the great Saint Joan of Arc. Her cult was extremely popular among the laity in England, perhaps because, like Saint George, the English patron saint, she also was victorious over a dragaon. It is likely that Saint Margaret of Scotland was named for her.
According to the Golden Legend, the only source of information for this Saint Margaret, she was the daughter of a pagan priest in Antioch but was herself converted to Christianity. When her father found out, he drove her out of the house and she fled to the countryside where she became a shepherdess. She spurned the advances of a Roman prefect named Olybrius, who was smitten by her beauty. In his wrath at her scorn, he had her imprisoned, where she fought with the devil which came to her cell in the form of a dragon. According to the legend, the dragon swallowed her, but the cross she carried in her hand so irritated his throat that he was forced to disgorge her. Her incarcerators then tried to kill her by drowning and by fire, all to no avail. In the course of surviving these ordeals, she converted thousands to Christianity, the legend tells us. Finally, she was executed by beheading.
This martyr-saint is one of the Catholic Fourteen Holy Helpers, who are invoked against disease. Her feast day is July 20.
This portrait of Saint Margaret was painted in 1630-35 by the great Spanish artist, Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664), one of my favorite painters. It can be found in the National Gallery in London. Zurbaran has heightened all of the ironies of Saint Margaret's life, showing her dressed as a shepherdess with her barefeet and staff, also in imitation of the Lord as Shepherd. However, her demeanor, the stylization of her clothes, the detailed beauty of her bag, her jewelery, and her ability to read--she is holding her place with her finger--tells us that this is no ordinary shepherdess but a lady, who has been humbled in station and in attitude (her head is slightly lowered) by Christianity. At the same time, the strength of her faith has enabled her to vanquish a dragon, who we see lat her feet, and that also challenges us, the viewers, with an expression that seems to quietly say, "Let's see you do this."
I love how Zurburan has portrayed the saint in contemporary dress--a constant ruse in Medieval and Renaissance art to emphasize the relevance of Christianity to contemporary life. This occurs in a different way in the painting of Saint Margaret by the French Renaissance painter Jean Fouquet (1415-1480), in his miniature Book of Hours for Etienne Chevalier now in the Louvre in Paris.
In this painting, Saint Marguerite, second from the right with a nimbus around her head, is portrayed as an ordinary peasant. The painting seems more ominous and also perhaps more political. We are seeing Saint Margaret just before she is arrested by the powers that be for her Christianity. Fouquet counterpoints the black and white of the soldiers' horses with the black and white of Saint Margaret's sheep and contrasts the soldiers' physical might with the demure image of Saint Margaret as a young slip of a girl, prepared through faith to submit to God's plan for her.
Lastly, this page from an illuminated manuscript shows Saint Margaret sans political or contemporary connotation. The illustrator focuses on the saint as she is in prayer to God against the devil.