Taming the devil – 20 July 2020
Here is the portrait of a young Spanish woman, a shepherdess. She wears traditional peasant dress of the 17th century. In her right hand she holds her crook, and over the other arm alforjas (saddlebags). She holds a book in her left hand –prayers, or maybe scripture. At her side is a tamed dragon, no threat to her at all. She looks out at us coolly, assessing what she sees. What might she be thinking?
The woman here is St Margaret of Antioch (Antioch in Pisidia, Turkey). Her mother died shortly after her birth, and legend has it that she was raised by a Christian nurse. It is the nurse’s flock that she tends. She dedicated her life to Christ, a consecrated virgin. Persecuted because of her faith she underwent trials and torture, including being swallowed by the dragon, which is the devil, who literally could not stomach her and spit her out. Her Christian goodness tamed the devil.
Margaret, also called Marina, gave her life during the Diocletian persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century. Her preaching before her death is said to have converted many to the Christian faith. She is commemorated on 20 July. She was an important saint of the middle ages, when devotion revived at the time of the Crusades. She was one of the fourteen holy helpers, saints whose intercessions were helpful against diseases, especially the plague. Hundreds of churches in England are named for her, including St Margaret’s, Westminster, the parish church of the British Parliament.
This wonderful painting is by Zurbaran (1631). Many copies and re-workings of the subject exist.
“Jhesu Cryste my Lord, that dydeste for us alle,
Hyghe Kynge of heven, to Thee I clepe and calle.
Of my steedfaste herte ne latte me never falle,
And of my stabylle corage not turne for hem alle.
“Jhesu Cryste my Lord, to Thee I me wende,
That never hadde begynnynge nor never schalle have ende.
If Thi swete wylle were, an angel me Thou sende,
From this foule gostys I may me defende.4
“Alle my kynne I have forsake; to Thee, knelynge on my knee,
Jhesu Cryste, my good Lord, to Thee I betake me.
Gladlye I wylle for Thi love in erthe a martyre for to be,
Nowe has he his houndys on me sette, that I ne may not flee.”
From ‘Stanzaic Life of St Margaret’, 13thC
from whom Margaret of Antioch gained courage
to claim the name of Christian
and to prefer your love to life itself,
grant that we who cherish her blessed memory
may share her pure and steadfast faith,
and win with her the palm of victory:
through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Collect of Margaret of Antioch, Book of Common Prayer, The Episcopal Church