Saint Eulalia: The Iconography
DECEMBER 10 AND FEBRUARY 12
St. Eulalia of Mérida was tortured and burned to death on December 10, 304, during the persecution of Diocletian, and her story was told later in the same century by Prudentius in his Peristephanon.
St. Eulalia of Barcelona, the patron saint of that city, was martyred on February 12 of the same year. In the seventh century Bishop Quiricus of Barcelona published a poem on the Barcelonan Eulalia that was identical with Prudentius' work. It is quite possible that the two saints are actually one and the same.
Prudentius' story is so gruesome that modern readers might consider it a lurid and sadistic male fantasy, as it surely is in the Waterhouse painting of 1885, at right. But many of Prudentius' readers would have been alive at the time of the great persecution, and it would have been in his interest to tell a story of, in Aristotle's phrase, "the kind of thing that can happen."
Further, contrasting Prudentius' work with Waterhouse's helps us recognize the former's more noble purpose. In Waterhouse, St. Eulalia lies dead and prone, her lustrous body exposed to the elements and the view of gawking boys. The lightly falling snow emphasizes her pallor and helplessness, as do the doves who go about their business in the open spaces around her body. But in Prudentius there is just one dove, white as snow and explicitly interpreted as her soul, which emerges triumphantly from her mouth at the moment of her death and rises with swift assurance to Heaven. And Prudentius shows us the thickly fallen snow before we learn that her body lies beneath it – taking the place, the poet tells us, of a linen cloak.
Indeed, Prudentius' classical verse functions like that snow, enmantling the saint in rhetorical luminosity and witnessing that she is emphatically not an object of either prurience or pity. On the contrary, his St. Eulalia amazes with her vigor and daring. As the flames roar around her and consume her long hair, she is said to drink them in with her mouth, the very mouth from which the dove will break forth triumphant in the following verse.
Even in the 14th-century Palma de Mallorca altarpiece above that shows St. Eulalia naked in her torments (now much multiplied), the great size and dignity of the central figure of the saint, along with the stylization of gesture in the episodes, go a long way to raise the effect well above the prurient.
It is only in the Renaissance, when artists looked for inspiration to the art favored by St. Eulalia's very persecutors, that frankly sexual depictions such as that of Bartolomé Ordoñez become acceptable.
Medieval hagiography was influenced by the ninth-century Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie (see below), in which the fire is incapable of burning the saint and she is consequently put to death by the sword. The iconography retains a few features from Prudentius' story, such as the dove and the long hair, but in the high and late middle ages St. Eulalia is seen with a cross saltire, as in the second picture at right. The palm of martyrdom is of course customary. She is also seen at times with a crown, which would be consistent with Prudentius' insistence on her noble birth, or with a book or scroll (example).
The Hymn of St. Eulalia
Eulalia was a perfect girl.
She had a beautiful body, a soul still more beautiful.
God’s enemies wanted to vanquish her.
They wanted to make her serve the devil.
But she did not listen to bad counselors
Who advised her to deny God, who lives in Heaven.
Not gold, nor silver, nor finery
Nor the king’s threats and entreaties
Could ever make the girl
Stop loving the service of God.
And so she was brought before Maximian,
Who was king of the pagans in those days.
He exhorts her, though without success,
To give up the name of Christian.
She endures the torment of the fire.
She would rather endure the torture
Than lose her virginity.
Thus she died in glory.
They threw her in the fire so she would burn quickly.
She had done nothing wrong, so the fire did not consume her.
The pagan king would not give in.
He ordered that she be beheaded with a sword.
The demoiselle did not refuse.
She wanted to leave this earth, prayed Christ that she could.
In the form of a dove she flew to Heaven.
Let us all pray that she will deign to pray for us
And that Christ will have mercy on us
After our death, and let us come to him
In his mercy.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-31.
Altarpiece of St. Eulalia, Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca, 1350. See the description page.