Maniera di Turino Vanni
St. Margaret and Stories from Her Life
Tempera and gold on wood panel
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome
In the central panel Margaret stands astride the dragon she has vanquished holding the cross that is her attribute. The small figure on the left in the central panel is presumably the donor.
The eight small panels to the left and right tell the story of her Passion and are fairly close to the Golden Legend in sequence and detail. Like the Legend, the artist ignores the statements in many other versions that Olibrius and his people were "Saracens," dressing them instead as medieval Europeans.
The altarpiece's main variations from the Legend are the second panel on the left, which seems to be out of order and based on another version, and the bottom panel on the right, which addresses posthumous miracles.
Details and an explanation of the sequence follow below.
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The narrative begins at the bottom left, when Olibrius first sees Margaret. In the Golden Legend, "On a certain day, when she was fifteen years of age, and kept the sheep of her nurse with other maidens, the provost Olybrius passed by the way whereas she was, and considered in her so great beauty and fairness, that anon he burned in her love, and sent his servants and bade them take her and bring her to him, 'for if she be free I shall take her to my wife, and if she be bond, I shall make her my concubine.'"
Left side, second panel from the bottom: Margaret is brought before Olibrius and refuses him. In the Golden Legend he then threatens her, "But if thou [i.e., unless you] consent to me I shall make thy body to be all to-torn." She replies, "Christ gave himself over to the death for me, and I desire gladly to die for Christ."
Left side, third panel from the bottom: The Holy Spirit comforts Margaret in her prison cell. Different versions tell of the dove in different ways. In a Latin vita she invokes the Holy Spirit during her debate with Olibrius, but the dove does not actually appear (Acta Sanctorum, July vol. 5, 36). In Bokenham (16) and in an Old French life (Stouck, 587) it appears to her in prison as here, but after the episode of the dragon. In the Golden Legend, it comes in public at the end of the tortures and brings her a golden crown.
Only in a few versions does a night in prison intervene between Olibrius's first colloquy with Margaret and his order that she be beaten. These include the 1330 Seinte Marherete (Cockayne, 26) and a passage from the South English Legendary in Head, 685.
Left side, top panel: Margaret is beaten with iron rods. The Golden Legend places this immediately after the first colloquy between Margaret and Olibrius. The latter "commanded her to be hanged in an instrument to torment the people, and to be cruelly first beaten with rods, and with iron combs to rend and draw her flesh to the bones, insomuch that the blood ran about out of her body, like as a stream runneth out of a fresh springing well."
The story continues at the top of the right side: Olibrius has Margaret put in prison, "and whilst she was in prison, she prayed our Lord that the fiend that had fought with her, he would visibly show him unto her. And then appeared a horrible dragon and assailed her, and would have devoured her, but she made the sign of the cross, and anon he vanished away."
On the right, second panel from the top: The Golden Legend says, "Then the next day following, when all the people was assembled, she was presented tofore the judge. And she not doing sacrifice to their false gods, was cast into the fire, and her body broiled with burning brands, in such wise that the people marvelled that so tender a maid might suffer so many torments. And after that, they put her in a great vessel full of water, fast bounden, that by changing of the torments, the sorrow and feeling of the pain should be the more." This panel departs slightly, combining fire and cauldron into a single image (as is done in the 1330 Seinte Marherete, p. 31). It also departs from the Legend in making the messenger from Heaven an angel with a palm branch rather than a dove with a golden crown.
On the right, third panel from the top: Margaret is beheaded. As in the Golden Legend, the executioner then falls dead ("and he, falling down at her feet, gave up the ghost").
On the right, bottom panel: St. Margaret's posthumous miracles are not addressed in the Golden Legend, but many of them are detailed in other accounts, especially a narrative of the translations of her relics published in Acta Sanctorum (July vol. 5, 41-44). Votive offerings such as we see hanging on the wall in the panel below are not mentioned in any account I have found. They would refer to body parts cured through the intercession of the saint.
Read more about St. Margaret.
Photographed at the Vatican Museums by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.