Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Saint Margaret of Antioch – Dragon Slayer

Charles Alphonse Dufresnoy, St. Margaret of Antioch
French, 1656
Evreux, Musée d'Art Histoire et Archéologie
There are several women honored as saints or blesseds by the Catholic Church who are named Margaret.  For example, there are St. Margaret of Scotland, St. Margaret of Cortona, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Blessed Margaret Pole and St. Margaret Clitherow.   But all of them (and I myself) draw their names from a woman who may or may not have lived.  This is St. Margaret of Antioch,  who is remembered by the Church on July 20.  She is little remembered today, but was a major saint in the Middle Ages through the Baroque.
 
This first St. Margaret was reputedly born in Syria, in the area around Antioch.  Antioch is a city with a long, long Christian tradition.  Indeed, it is in Antioch that the followers of the new way in Judaism were first called “Christians”.  It is the city that saw saints Peter and Paul preach and is the city of one of the best known of the very early Christian martyrs, St. Ignatius of Antioch.   Ignatius was bishop of Antioch (the third ever, the first being St. Peter) in the latter decades of the first century and his letters tell us much about the beliefs and disciplines of the early Church.   The letters we have were written while he was in transit, under guard, from Antioch to Rome, where he died, as he had expressly hoped, torn to pieces by the big cats of the new Flavian Amphitheatre (which we know as the Colosseum).1  With this background, it is not surprising that a young woman named Margaret, who was a Christian, may have been born near the city, 
Guercino, St. Margaret of Antioch
Italian, c. 1630
Rome, S. Pietro in Vincoli

Margaret is, in fact, a name with deep roots in the Middle East, for it is derived from the Persian word for “pearl”.  In many languages there is a close association between the words for pearl and daisy.2  In French, for example, daisies are known as “marguerites”.  And women with the name Margaret have sometimes been gifted with the nickname “Daisy” in addition to the more common Margie, Maggie and Meg.  So, Margaret, probably in the sense of pearl, would not be an unusual name to find in a Syrian woman.

Chances are that there may have been an early Christian woman martyr in Syria or southern Anatolia named Margaret during one of the persecutions that beset the Church in the Roman Empire.  However, as with many of the early saints her story became embellished over time with stories of horrendous cruelties and fairytale elements.  In Margaret’s case these elements came to completely overshadow her human story.
    
According to the legend, Margaret was born on Antioch near the end of the third century, the daughter of a priest of one of the pagan cults, presumably for one of the gods or goddesses of the Roman pantheon.  Since her mother died when she was a baby, she was given to a wet nurse to raise.  The woman happened to be a Christian and introduced Margaret to the faith.
Jean Fouquet, St. Margaret of Antioch Spinning Wool
from Hours of Etienne Chevalier
French (Tours), ca. 1450-1460
Paris, Musee du Louvre
MS MI 1093

On her coming of age, she was requested in marriage by a high ranking Roman official.  She refused him and refused to renounce her faith as well.  For this she was tortured (in some pretty horrific ways) and thrown into prison.  In prison she was attacked by Satan in two forms.  First, as a handsome young man who attempted to persuade her to surrender to the pleasures of the flesh.  Having failed at that, he decided to try terror, assumed the form of a dragon and swallowed her whole. 

Richard de Montbaston, Martyrdom of Margaret of Antioch
from Golden Legend by Jacobus de VoragineFrench (Paris), 1348
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 241, fol.159v
Nothing daunted, Margaret either cut her way out of the dragon with a cross she had been holding when swallowed, or was miraculously released by the spontaneous explosion of the dragon when she made the sign of the cross from within his stomach.  For this reason, she is most frequently shown holding a cross and with a dead or dying dragon at her feet.

However, this reprieve was only temporary.  She was eventually beheaded during the persecution of Diocletian (303-305).4


Margaret was an extremely popular saint during the medieval period and remained so into the Renaissance and Baroque periods.  She is the patron saint of a number of things and events, including pregnant women and childbirth.

In art we see different aspects of her life.  Sometimes she is shown as a shepherdess or wool worker, a reference to the supposed occupation of her foster mother.
Mahiet and Collaborators, St. Margaret of Antioch
as a Shepherdess
from Speculum historiale by Vincentius Bellovacensis
French (Paris), c.1335_
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de FrBNF_Arsenal 5080_288

Francisco de Zurbaran, St. Margaret of Antioch
as a Shepherdess
Spanish, 1630-1634
London, National Gallery




















At other times it is the scene of her eventual martyrdom that we are shown.
Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Martyrdom of St. Margaret
from Vies de Saints
French (Paris), 1300-1325
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 183, fol. 86v
This miniature shows both her escape from the dragon and
her martyrdom.

Lodovico Carracci, Martyrdom of St. Margaret
Italian, 1616
Mantua, San Maurizio, Cappella di Santa Margherita




















At times she is seen in her place in heaven as a martyr saint.  Here the dragon may appear as one of her attributes but always as a subdued, barely hinted at presence.    What is more important is the cross or martyr's palm that she holds.  She also is frequently shown holding a book.
St. Margaret of Antioch
Spanish (Burgos), c.1275-1325
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

St. Margaret of Antioch
Catalan (Lleida), 1330-1340
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters




















St. Margaret of Antioch
from Cologne Missal
German (Cologne), 1150
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
 MS Latin 12055, fol. 164v

Rogier van der Weyden, Saints Margaret and Apollonia
Flemish, 1445-1450
Berlin, Staatliche Museen

Jacques de Besançon, The Court of Heaven
from Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), 1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 244, fol.156
In this image Margaret takes her place among
the front ranks of the female martyrs.  
She stands in the first row, wearing a
 dark blue dress and brownish cloak 
and carrying a cross over her right shoulder.

























Annibale Carracci, St. Margaret of Antioch
Italian, 1597-1599
Rome, S. Caterina della Rosa

Peter Candid, St. Margaret of Antioch
Flemish, ca. 1600
Private Colletion




















Jan Brueghel I, St. Margaret of Antioch
Flemish, 1600-1625
Private Collection


Ernest Hebert, St. Margaret of Antioch
French, c. 1877
Paris, Musee national Ernest Hebert


















But, primarily she is seen in relation to her victory over the devil/dragon.  These images come from all the time periods.  Sometimes the dragon is a truly fierce monster, but quite frequently he is seen almost as a pet. Sometimes, Margaret is seen to be popping out of the dragon.  At other times she has already been completely liberated.  At still others she is standing victoriously atop the beast.

St. Margaret Emerging from the dragon
from Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Belgian (Hainaut), 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition française 16251, fol. 100
St. Margaret Emerging from the dragon
from Sermons of Maurice de Sully
Italian (Milan or Genoa), 1320-1330
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 187, fol. 41























Workshop of Agnolo Gaddi, St. Margaret of Antioch
Italian, c.1390
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
In this image Margaret is being ejected by the
dragon by mouth rather than bursting through his belly.


Master of Marguerite d'Orléans, St. Margaret of Antioch
from Heures de Marguerite d'Orléans
French (Rennes), c. 1430
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1156 B, fol. 176
I suggest that you click on this image to enlarge it so you won't miss the detail of Margaret as a shepherdess in the right side of the margin and the two rather charming little dragons in the bottom margin who are looking up approvingly at the devil's discomfiture.
St. Margaret of Antioch
French (Toulouse), c. 1475
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jean Bourdichon, St. Margaret of Antioch
from Grandes heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, 205v




















The dragons in these two images seem almost domesticated, almost pet-like.

Workshop of Maestro Giorgio Andreoli, St. Margaret of Antioch
Majolica dish
Italian, 1527
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lehman Collection






Obviously, this was one little bit of fantasy that painters and sculptors (and even potters) could relate to, a kind of comic relief in their usual work of preparing images of the martyr saints that were often far from comic.








However, Raphael (known through several copies by his students, such as Giulio Romano) and Titian suggest that there may have been a struggle to escape from the dragon.

Giulio Romano (after Raphael), St. Margaret of Antioch
Italian, c. 1518
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Titian, St. Margaret of Antioch
Italian, 1565
Madrid, Museo del Prado





















Studio of Giacomo Ceruti. St. Margaret of Antioch
Italian, c. 1700
Private Collection
At the end of the seventeenth century, an artist working in the circle of Giacomo Ceruti imagined the vanquished demon as partially returned to human form, a much more unsettling image for we see Satan resuming his appearance as a fallen angel.



Even given the comic relief aspect, there is a deeper reference here, one with a Biblical foundation. For, it refers to what had been foretold in the book of Genesis, when God rebuked the "snake" who tempted Eve to sin "Then the LORD God said to the snake:  Because you have done this, cursed are you among all the animals, tame or wild; On your belly you shall crawl, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.  I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel."  (Genesis 3:14-15)  The dragon that devoured Margaret is the same snake that tempted Eve, both are personifications of Satan, the Devil, the Enemy who is both an enemy to God and to humanity.  Margaret is here seen as a reflection of the Virgin Mary, the quintessential "woman" of Genesis and of Revelation and the Second Eve, who, with the offspring of both her body (Jesus) and her faith (Margaret, the saints, and by extension, all Christians) will strike at his head. 5

© M. Duffy, 2016
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  1.       For St. Ignatius of Antioch see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07644a.htm, which includes links to his letters.  O'Connor, John Bonaventure. "St. Ignatius of Antioch." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 20 Jul. 2016
  2.         https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret
  3.           The story of the dragon was too much of a strain on the credulity of Jacobus de Voragine, who was quite happy with a great many other fantastic stories.  In his The Golden Legend, written in  he says “This swallowing and breaking of the belly of the dragon is said that it is apocryphal.” From The GOLDEN LEGEND or LIVES of the SAINTS, Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275 First Edition Published 1470, ENGLISHED by WILLIAM CAXTON, First Edition 1483, VOLUME FOUR.  From the Temple Classics Edited by F.S. ELLIS First issue of this Edition, 1900 Reprinted 1922, 1931< http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume4.asp&gt
  4.        MacRory, Joseph. "St. Margaret." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 20 Jul. 2016 .
  5. For more on the connections between the snake, the Virgin Mary and both Genesis and Revelations, see the articles "Annunciation – The World Created Anew" and "The Immaculate Conception" 

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