September 17, 2012 by Gail Armstrong
One day I was happily browsing the Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscript photostream on Flickr when I came across this arresting image:
The colours are spectacular but what caught my eye of course was the deranged face of what appears to be a demonic, flop-eared unicorn/dragon hybrid with a taste for velvet. Why is that bizarre creature chewing that poor woman’s robe, I couldn’t help but wonder, and why is she so calm about it? Is this her pet? Is she praying for him to get over his taste for munching on her best dress?
Those who are in the know about their saints will recognize the image as Margaret of Antioch. Apparently she was the daughter of a pagan priest, driven from home after converting to Christianity. While working as a shepherdess, she attracted unwanted attention from a local prefect, rejected him and found herself imprisoned for her faith and/or indifference. While in prison the devil appeared to her in the form of a dragon and swallowed her whole, but either her purity or the cross she held (depending which version you read) caused him to disgorge her (either through his throat or his abdomen, again depending on version). She miraculously lived to survive attempts to execute her by fire and by drowning, until finally succumbing to beheading (difficult not to succumb to that).
She is the patron saint of childbirth (an analogy having been seen between that process and the process of being disgorged by the beast?), and went on to be one of the voices that conversed with Joan of Arc. She was widely popular throughout the middle ages, and thus many images are to be found in manuscripts of the time. The above remains my favourite, but here are few others that caught my eye for one reason or another…
- I like this one because the beast here, unlike the lunatic creature above, actually looks kind of shaggy and harmless. He strikes me as more likely to be gumming the bottom of her robe than shredding it with his fangs. I also like the image of the lord almighty peering down benignly and blowing gold miracle-beams down to Margaret’s cross…
2. This beast also has a vaguely hapless look about him. Maybe he started off all ferocious, but now he’s bug-eyed with hair standing on end thinking “what’s going on here? Why have I sprung a leak and how did lunch manage to do THAT?”
3. This is another beast I find it hard to hate. He actually looks to me like he’s smiling, enjoying a quiet nibble on Margaret’s robe. I adore the blue sky in this miniature, and isn’t the border splendid?
4. Here, however, is an altogether different beast. This one is truly terrifying, with his fire-red eyes and bloody claws. And this Margaret doesn’t seem quite so serene to me – miraculous escape notwithstanding, there’s a look of apprehension here that is entirely absent from the preceding images. This one depicts her in a tiny, claustrophobic cell as well (compare the garden setting in the image above) – this image could give you nightmares.
5. In this image, Margaret herself looks quite severe, but the dragon is a beauty! Look at those colours, and I love the way he’s coiled right around her. If it weren’t for the somewhat graphic blood caked around the opening to his abdomen, you might think he was her exotic pet lizard giving her a reptilian hug…
(this image is a reproduction —
6. Here is a more stylized depiction, showing Margaret still standing in the dragon, and appearing to pepper-spray the demon that has sprung out of him. I like this ‘fighting’ Margaret, and interestingly I found this image in a post by feminist Andrea Dworkin, used to illustrate a rebel female doing battle against the assaults of male/state power. (The saint in the other panel is St. Catherine, who debated and defeated fifty learned men, then was tortured and killed for refusing to become the emperor’s mistress.)
7. Finally, here’s an image in which I find Margaret considerably more severe than the dragon, who looks a little small and toothless. It wouldn’t surprise me if he tried a little nibble, caught the look on her face and slinked away thinking she’d have been a bitter snack anyhow…
There are many more Margaret images out there…if you have any favourites, please tell me about them!