Private collection, Germany
This charming depiction of Saint Margaret, carved three-quarters in the round, the reverse flattened, and designed for a frontal and slightly lowered viewpoint, shows the saint dressed in a fashionable bodice, long gown and voluminous cloak, her foot resting on her attribute, the dragon, its head and tail now lost. With extensive original polychrome and gilding and marked on the reverse with the city mark of Mechelen, our sculpture, produced c. 1510 – 1520, shows the young martyr as elegant, graceful and refined, her high forehead and angelic facial features typical of the small devotional works crafted there during the early decades of the 16th century. With exquisite craquelure, delicate features and her long golden rope-like plats emerging from beneath her laced and beaded headpiece, the present work is a beautifully balanced representation of the legend of a popular and venerated female saint.
Saint Margaret of Antioch, also known as Margherita, Margaritha and Margaretha, was a virgin and martyr whose story is known from a collection of legends rather than contemporary historical accounts. Her father, Theodosius, was a pagan priest in Pisidian, Antioch (modern Turkey). Her mother died when Margaret was an infant and she was raised by a Christian woman. Margaret’s father disowned her, her nurse adopted her and Margaret converted, consecrating herself and her virginity to God. When she was 15 years old, Olybrius, a Roman prefect, saw the beautiful young Margaret as she was tending sheep and tried to seduce her. When she refused his advances, the official denounced her as an outlaw Christian. She was arrested, thrown into prison and tortured. When she refused to yield to the pagan gods, the authorities tried to burn her, then boil her in a large cauldron, each time her prayers keeping her unharmed. She was finally martyred by beheading.
It was during her time in prison that Saint Margaret prayed that ‘the fiend that had fought with her would visibly show him unto her.’ Satan appeared to her in the form of a dragon. Part of her story involves her being swallowed by the dragon and then escaping safely when the cross she carried irritated the dragon‘s innards, according to one version of the legend, through its split stomach, on another, through its spitting her out. This story explains why she has long been associated with pregnancy, labour, and childbirth. Saint Margaret is sometimes depicted as stepping out from the stomach of the dragon. Other images show her emerging from a dragon’s mouth or leading it tied to a chain. In our example, she rests her foot on the dragon. Saint Margaret is part of a group of saints known as the Fourteen Holy Helpers.