St Margaret of Antioch

The following is from a talk given by one of our church wardens, Melinda Samms:

According to legend, Margaret was the daughter of a pagan priest. Her mother having died soon after her birth, she was nursed by a Christian woman near Antioch. Having embraced Christianity, Margaret was disowned by her father, adopted by her nurse, and lived in the country keeping sheep with her foster mother in what is now Turkey. The Governor of the Roman Diocese of the East asked to marry her, but with the demand that she renounce Christianity. When she refused, she was cruelly tortured, during which various miraculous incidents occurred. One of these involved being swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon.

Pregnant women have been praying to St Margaret of Antioch since the 12th century, hoping for a safe delivery for their child.

Some will have also used a small devotional sculpture like the one in the British Museum. Created in the 14th century in Paris from painted and gilded elephant ivory, it is about 6 inches high, and shows Margaret leaning slightly back, her hands clasped in prayer, rising up in triumph, as she bursts forth from the hunched body of a rather weary-looking dragon. He is munching listlessly on Margaret’s robes which are hanging out of its mouth.

The fingertips on Margaret’s right hand are not original, because she was probably once holding a crucifix. And that’s because, according to legend, Margaret was saved by invoking the cross, which helpfully grew huge, and split the dragon’s body apart. Just as important as Margaret’s victory over the dragon was her swift emergence. By an analogy not particularly flattering to women in labour, she became associated with safe and rapid childbirth, a protectress who would bring mother and baby safely through the ordeal. She prayed at her death that women in childbirth would, if they called on her, be safely delivered of their child as she had been delivered from the belly of the dragon.

This ivory sculpture is a luxury example of a Europe-wide cult found in every class. Women in labour had St Margaret’s life story read aloud to them to ensure an easy delivery. Her girdle was one of the most prized relics of the Abbey of St Germain des Prés in Paris, and it was solemnly carried to the Queens of France when they were in labour. Under Margaret’s protection, Louis XIV came safely into the world.

From as early as the 5th century the church questioned not just Margaret’s famous encounter with the dragon, but her very existence. But her appeal was simply too strong. And this female dragon slayer, whether she existed or not, became one of medieval Europe’s most popular Saints, taken as a model for, and asked to help with, almost every aspect of a woman’s life. She is known as the patron saint of women, nurses, peasants and servants. She is also said to intercede for those who call on her from their deathbed.

St. Margaret is a common theme for wall paintings in English churches; some having her entire life adorning their walls. St. Margaret is often represented in these paintings as a shepherdess, or leading a chained dragon by her girdle, carrying a little cross in her hand. We have our own lovely stained glass window showing Margaret with the dragon, at the moment safely wrapped up in the Vestry, waiting for its re-instalment in the planned new windows behind the font.

Margaret was finally beheaded by the Roman governor. She was buried at Antioch, but her remains were taken later to Italy. That she existed and was martyred are probably true; all else is probably fictitious. She is, however, revered in both Eastern and Western churches. She appears to have been a good and holy woman, steadfast in her faith, and with thoughts for other women uppermost, even at her most difficult moments. And while we may not be called upon to fight a dragon any time soon, we may need to defend or explain our faith, resist temptation or put the needs of others before our own. In these circumstances, we could do much worse than call on St Margaret as a source of inspiration and help.

Cover image credit: British Museum