Saint Euphemia: The Iconography

In Chalcedon the natal day Not her birthday but the day she died and was "born again" into Heaven of St. Euphemia, Virgin and Martyr. Under the Emperor Diocletian and the Proconsul Priscus she endured torments, imprisonment, beatings, the rack, fire, stone weights, wild beasts, rods, sharp blades, and heated pans – all for Christ. But when she was taken to the wild beasts in the arena, while she was praying God to receive her soul, one of the animals took just one bite from her holy body and the others licked her feet. With that she gave up her immaculate soul to God. – Roman Martyrology for September 16

St. Euphemia was martyred at Chalcedon during the persecutions of Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century. After Christianity was legalized in 313, the people of Chalcedon built a church in her honor. In about 380-90 St. Asterius of Amasea visited the church and was deeply moved by a painting of Euphemia's martyrdom that may have been based on eyewitness accounts. He then wrote an ekphrasis, a literary description of the painting, which is the earliest account of Euphemia's martyrdom.1

In the first scene in the painting Asterius describes a judge who looks down severely from his throne on the blushing virgin, whom the artist has dressed in the pallium and dark tunic of a philosopher. In the next scene one executioner pulls her head back, a second forces her mouth open, and a third pulls out her teeth as blood flows from her mouth. In the third scene she is in prison, lifting her hands to a vision of the Cross. In the fourth she stands enveloped in flames, "rejoicing as she passes on to the blessed, incorporeal life."

Oddly, the subsequent iconography of Euphemia derives not from the ekphrasis but from an 8th-century passio Passio: An account of the suffering and death of a Christian martyr. by John the Stylite. The passio has some of the features that came to be familiar in accounts of virgin martyrs: speeches vindicating Christian monotheism, a named judge (in this case one Priscus) who reacts with growing wrath to the virgin's stubbornness, and a series of attempted executions or tortures miraculously averted. John's account puts Euphemia into a fire as the ekphrasis did, but for John this is just one of many attempts thwarted by divine intervention. At the end she is taken to the arena to be eaten by lions, but they simply lick her feet while one of them gently nips her shoulder. At that a voice from Heaven calls, "Ascend on high, O Euphemia!"2

PORTRAITS

In portraits the lion becomes one of Euphemia's attributes, as in the first image at right. That image also shows a sword stuck in her breast. This refers to the way the Golden Legend's version ends: The lions' gentleness enrages Priscus, so a bystander finally dispatches the saint by thrusting a sword into her breast. (Death by the sword is a common trope in virgin-martyr stories, as is another feature of the Golden Legend's account, sexual humiliation.)

No extant image has Euphemia in the philosopher's tunic and pallium mentioned in Asterius's ekphrasis. In 6th-century mosaics she typically wears a white veil over a jeweled coif, as in the third picture at right. In later Orthodox icons she holds a cross and wears a maphorion A hooded upper garment often with a neck hole like the Virgin Mary's. In the West the garb varies.

NARRATIVE IMAGES

Narrative images are very rare. Jameson's 1879 survey of Euphemia's iconography discovered none at all, but in 1935 a photographer found a fresco series based on John the Stylite's account in the ruins of a church in Istanbul.3 There is also a 19th-century painting of the lions episode in a Croatian cathedral (the second picture at right).

The Golden Legend claims that Ambrose of Milan (340-397) wrote in a "Preface" that Euphemia "was plucked unhurt from the fiery furnace" and then thrown to the "wild beasts," who "turned gentle and bent their heads."4 This seems unlikely, as these details reflect the account in John the Stylite and are at variance with what the Chalcedonians probably knew about Euphemia's martyrdom.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2015-11-01, 2016-12-28, 2017-05-14.

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Mantegna's 1454 portrait of St. Euphemia, with the lion at her side and a sword in her breast. See the description page for details.


The martyrdom of St. Euphemia: painting in St. Euphemia's Basilica, Rovinj, Croatia (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Detail from the apse vault in the Euphrasian Basilica, Poreč, Croatia. Follow this link for a view of the whole vault.

MORE IMAGES

  • 6th century: Mosaic with St. Pelagia in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
  • 6th century: Mosaic with SS. Cecilia and Eugenia, Archiepiscopal Palace, Ravenna
  • 1717: Fresco by William Borremans in Palermo
  • 19th century: Painting of the arrival of St. Euphemia's relics in Rovinj, Croatia. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

DATES

  • Feast day: September 16
  • Died in 303 or 304

HAGIOGRAPHY

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 Acta Sanctorum, September vol. 5, 283-84. Jameson (II, 170-71) has a partial translation. The possibility of an eyewitness source is suggested by the painting's closeness in time and location to the actual events and also by the absence of any of the fanciful divine interventions common in later hagiography.

2 John the Stylite, Select Narratives, 149-167.

3 Jameson, II, 169-174 and especially 173. For the Istanbul discovery see "The Church of Hagia Euphemia" and "West Apse Frescoes."

4 Ryan, II, 183.