Saint Edmund: The Iconography
DECEMBER 25
Edmund was king of East Anglia in the 9th century. According to Ælfric's "Life of St. Edmund" pagan invaders from Denmark captured him, tied him to a tree near what is now Bury St. Edmund's, and had him shot with javelins "just as Sebastian was." St. Sebastian was killed with arrows, which many artists have preferred to javelins when portraying the king's death. Even in the Wilton Diptych, where only one projectile is shown, the artist chooses to use an arrow.

Both kinds of projectile seem to be a problem for sculptors assigned to portray the saint. Arrows or javelins of stone would be likely to break off and unlikely to fit neatly in a niche. Perhaps this is the reason that the 19th-century statue in Salisbury Cathedral has the left chest pierced by a dagger up to the hilt, and a 15th-century statue in Suffolk shows the moment before the arrows fly, with the saint in his crown tied to the tree and waiting for the end.

At right is a wall painting of the saint pierced by a multitude of arrows.

HAGIOGRAPHY

Ælfric, a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon homilist, wrote the first life of Edmund on the basis of an oral report by an old man who had heard it from a member of Edmund's court. His original Old English text is in Needham (43-59); a translation is in Stouck, (267-72). Ælfric's Life ends with a number of miracles attributed to Edmund after his death. The Golden Legend's section on the saint shortens Ælfric's account and omits the miracles. There is a Middle English life in the Early South English Legendary (296-99).

In the Golden Legend's life of St. John the Evangelist the miracles include one in which King Edmund gives a precious ring to a poor pilgrim who later turns out to be St. John (Ryan I, 55). But this is a mistake: the story belongs to another saint, King Edward the Confessor, who gives the ring to the pilgrim in the 13th-century La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei and in the 15th-century Vita Beati Edvardi Regis et Confessoris (Luard 122-125 and 373f). The Wilton Diptych's portrait of Edward uses the ring as his attribute. The Caxton translation of the Golden Legend corrects this mistake and correctly assigns the ring story to St. Edward.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-29.

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The Martyrdom of St. Edmund (See the description page)

DATES

  • Died 869

FURTHER HAGIOGRAPHY