The core of St. Margaret's story was summarized in the 9th century in the Martyrology of Rabanus Maurus:
In Antioch, Margaret the virgin. The Consul Olibrius, wishing to ravish and turn her away from faith in Christ, afflicted her with many torments and ordered her hung on a rack and her flesh slashed with sharp nails. After that he put her in a dark prison cell, where she overcame the seductions of the devil, who appeared to her in the guise of a dragon and an Ethiope. None of his deceptions could harm her. Finally she was beheaded by the persecutor's sword.1By the time of the Golden Legend we find a number of elaborations on this story in vitas and altarpieces (example).
THE DRAGON AND THE DEMON
The dragon is St. Margaret's most common attribute. How the artist presents it depends on his reception of a popular legend that the dragon swallowed Margaret but that she made the sign of the cross, causing the monster to burst asunder. An example is in the "Katherine Group" version, see Head, 697. Like a number of other writers, Voragine found this too fanciful for belief, so in the Golden Legend he offered a simpler version in which the dragon simply rushes at Margaret, sees her make the sign of the cross, and thereupon simply vanishes.2
Some images use the burst-dragon version to present Margaret actually in the maw of the beast, as in the third picture at right. Others opt for other ways of expressing her victory over the dragon. An altarpiece in Padua has her piercing the dragon through the mouth with a long spear topped by a Cross of Lorraine. Another image has her standing as in the legend with her foot on the demon's second guise as an "Ethiope."3 In still others it is the dragon that she has under her feet (example) and sometimes holds with a chain, as in the first image at right and this example. And some simply have the dragon as an attribute, such as Zurbarán's portrait.
To symbolize the gesture of signing oneself the images of St. Margaret vanquishing the dragon usually give her a cross of some sort, such as the small red one in her right hand in the third picture at right. The cross can also be an attribute, as in the second picture.
THE INCREDIBLE BEAUTY
All the versions follow Rabanus in having Olibrius instantly struck with desire for the maiden, whom he is usually said to discover tending sheep among others of her age ("like Leah," says one source, "the mother of Joseph the Patriarch.") It is a commonplace that female saints may be beautiful to look at but are more beautiful within, but in the case of Margaret most versions take special pains to emphasize what an early Latin legend calls her incredible beauty (inter omnes incredibile pulchritudine speciosa videbatur). In Bokenham Olibrius is astonished by "her forehead lily white, her curved dark brows and grey eyes, her ruddy cheeks, her straight nose, her red lips, her chin that shone like polished marble and was cleft in the middle."4
For most artists of the time, such beauty had to mean fair hair, so St. Margaret is almost always a blonde, as in the three pictures at right. Jean Pien notes pictures of her from France that show her as a shepherdess with a crook, sheep, and passis crinibus, which can mean hair that is either disheveled or simply loose-flowing. In fact, almost all images have the hair flow more or less loosely down her back and/or over her shoulders, as in the first and second examples at right. The Zurbarán mentioned above has her as a more Latin version of the beautiful shepherdess – with dark hair styled just like the Queen of Spain's but in other ways dressed as a peasant of the region.
It is also commonplace to put crowns on virgin martyrs who may not have been royals, as in the first picture on the right, but in St. Margaret's case there is textual support for the many crowns we see in her portraits. In the Golden Legend Voragine writes of the saint's gaining "the crown of martyrdom" (Ryan, 370), but Caxton makes a fuller statement of this detail: "a dove descended from heaven, and set a golden crown on her head" (93 ¶28) The "Katherine Group" version goes even further: "All the earth began to shake and quiver, and a dove came, burning as bright as if it were on fire, and it brought a golden crown and set it on that blessed maiden's head" (Head, 703). And a much earlier Greek hymn (with the Orthodox version of her name) has "Marina, the hand of the officer severed your head / But the hand of God crowned you with grace" (Acta Sanctorum, July vol. 5, 35).
Rather than a crown there are a few cases where the saint wears a garland in her hair (as in the second picture at right), or holds it in her hands as in the one with the demon underfoot that was mentioned above.
Again we have a commonplace that in this case has special relevance to the legends. The books in the portraits will remind the medieval viewer of St. Margaret's final prayer that God may bless those who in time of childbirth or other peril will read, write, or even press to their body a copy of her story.5 Just having the book in one's house, according to the "Katherine Group" version, will prevent any demon from taking up residence there (Head, 704f).
THE HOLY HELPER
On the basis of her final prayers St. Margaret was included among the "Fourteen Holy Helpers" of late medieval piety. The first image at right is taken from a statuary group of the Helpers.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University