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December 2021

Io Saturnalia!

By Saturnalia

Io Saturnalia!

Saturnalia was a Roman festival in which everything got turned upside down. In that spirit, all I’ll write in this post is that this subject is better viewed via the video than written down!

Merry Christmas, one and all.


Io saturnalia

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

An unusual St Margaret in Santo Stefano

By Elevenses, Santo Stefano, Talking art

This is St Margaret. Who knew? Here she is getting raked on the rack although you’d think that she was lying stretched out for a beauty treatment. Unlike, however, the naked torso of St Marius, I don’t feel that there’s much that is erotic about this. Yes, she is partially naked and yes, her hair is spread over her breasts in what could be a sensual way but the fact that she’s being pronged in the nipple by a hay fork somewhat ruins the effect.

Saint Margaret

N. Circignani and M. da Siena, The Martyrdom of Saint Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, 1581-2

The man doing the pronging is rather intense, as is this man kneeling to the bottom left. Could we but see him properly in this pretty horrible reproduction of the fresco, we would see that he’s turning a wheel. The section of the wooden board beneath her armpit / upper arm is separating further with every turn. All she needs to do is worship the idol that is being held aloft for her attention but stoic St Margaret is having none of it.

Now, you might think that you are perhaps familiar with St Margaret if you take more than a passing fancy to art history.

She is most commonly seen emerging from the stomach of a dragon as in this image from a 15th century French prayer book.

The rapidity of her expulsion from the dragon is demonstrated here through the fact that it hadn’t even finished eating her robe before she burst from its stomach not only intact but bright eyed and bushy tailed. I’m not sure the dragon has noticed, however; it seems to be posing seductively with a bit of robe between its teeth!

The story of St Margaret (and even more than most saint’s stories, it really IS a story because it only appeared centuries after her death) is actually perfect for this time of year as it’s a bit of a Cinderella story…

St Margaret in book of hours

Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440 – c. 1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 216r

St Margaret the Shepherdess

Francisco de Zurbaran, St Margaret, 1631, National Gallery, London

Young Margaret converted to Christianity as a girl and was promptly thrown out of her home by her father. She became a shepherdess but (guess what?) was so beautiful that she attracted the attention of a Roman prefect. Inevitably he was pagan and when she spurned his advances, he had her arrested for her Christian beliefs.

Poor Margaret went through a series of impossible ordeals, aided by celestial creatures and her very own fairy godmother if we keep with the Cinderella tradition. These quite possibly included torture on the rack as well as attempts to kill her by burning her and drowning her, but she survived.

Perhaps she was also ripped apart by a hay fork. Notice the rip along the centre of her torso? This would seem to me to be a nod to the dragon incident. Dragons are pretty interesting creatures and can have multiple meanings but in this instance it inevitably stands for the devil who is so repulsed by the holy personage inside him, that it has to reject her immediately.

After all this torture, St Margaret was finally beheaded as most saints were, and presumably met her Prince Charming in heaven.

It’s not surprising that this became a hugely popular tale very often depicted in works of art and almost always with a dragon.

So why is no dragon depicted here? I think because the frescoes centre on man’s inhumanity to man. There are a few with wild animals, lions etc but they were sent by Pagans to destroy Christians. Remember that the whole raison d’etre of these frescoes was to promulgate the cause of Catholics against Protestants who were killing the Catholics, and to equate the fight for Christianity in Pagan Rome to the Counter Reformation. I guess a dragon masquerading as the devil doesn’t really fit that narrative?

St Margaret by the way, for reasons that are obvious, is the patron saint of child birth.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Santo Stefano gorefest: Sexy St Marius

By Elevenses, Santo Stefano, Talking art

If you take the central image of St Marius as your starting point for this fresco, you might feel that it’s one of the less challenging images in the series.

In fact, I have to wonder whether Circignani was going slightly for the objectification of the silver fox here?? He’s stretched out for the viewer, arms up to flatten the tummy and raise the chest, a low slung loin cloth that leads to some magnificently muscular legs AND he has his head down meaning that he can’t meet our gaze, hence we are free to feast on his torso. Okay, I know that he’s somewhat obliged to be in this position because he’s tied to a wooden frame, but that also acts as a pictorial frame. It’s as though this image of St Marius is a picture within a picture or a scene within a scene.

St Marius Santo Stefano Rotondo

N. Circignani and M. da Siena, The Martyrdom of Saint Marius, Martha, Audifax and Abacum, Santo Stefano Rotondo, fresco 19, 1581-2

To Marius’s right are his sons, Audifax and Abacum. They are gorgeous youths who look as though they were just walking down the path, when one stopped to say something to the other and all of a sudden a guy with two huge metal hooks accidentally got them stuck in their flesh. The boy on the right is looking down with some curiosity, as well he might, and the guy with the hooks has the air of a man who’s having a fabulous time perhaps shaking maracas in an overzealous dance rather than someone in the middle of committing an act of murder. Again, it’s rather incongruous, especially as there’s rather a lot of blood dripping down their bodies and pooling at their feet and it’s only on close examination that you realise that they are tied to a tree stump.

Audifax and Abacum from fresco of Martyrdom of St Marius

To Marius’s left is his wife, Martha. She looks like a lovely lady, dressed very decorously in a robe that would have been the height of fashion in ancient Rome. I’m not sure about her necklace or stole, however, I feel it’s in slightly poor taste?

Perhaps she knows this because she does seem to be looking down slightly shame faced. Maybe that’s because her hands are unfeasibly large, maybe it’s because they are indeed draped around her neck like mittens. If we missed that because her hands aren’t large enough, the livid red stumps trickling blood onto her lovely attire are another give away that something’s awry.

I don’t know what was going on in Circignani’s head when he designed this fresco, and I’m wondering whether the toll of all the previous gore had had an effect on him (this is fresco 19). Although we are told that this is Marius, his wife, Martha, and their two sons via the handy (sorry!) reference system, there’s no mention of big hooks and gruesome neck attire anywhere in the story of their martyrdom.

According to tradition, they travelled as a family from Persia to Rome and were arrested for burying martyred Christians, some of whom you can see piled up in the background as is customary in these frescoes. They were brought before a magistrate who told them that they would be released if they renounced their faith but they, I imagine very politely because they look like a polite family, said no thank you.

In the story Marius and his sons were beheaded on the Via Cornelia and their bodies were burned. Martha was murdered thirteen miles outside of Rome. Maybe she managed to run in her dress more successfully than the chaps could in their loin cloths?

Just when you thought there were no further gory scenes, we have St Valentine being beheaded over on the right, seen more clearly in a detail from an engraving of the fresco held in the British Museum.

There is also a couple in cauldron of boiling water on the left. One of them is St Justina who had the misfortune of being pretty and having a pagan nobleman fall in love with her. When it became obvious that she really wasn’t interested, he did what anyone would do in that situation and employed a magician called Cyprian to cast a spell over her to make her love him in return. The plot thickens when Cyprian saw her and decided that, actually, it might be rather nice to have her for himself. So he tried to woo her by filling her head (with the help of the devil) with all sorts of dark, decadent, lustful fantasies and visions but she was having none of it. To his credit, Cyprian realised at this point that God was wielding more power than the devil and he decided on the strength of this to get baptised. After his baptism, he’s also persecuted as a Christian along with Justina; it’s him in that cauldron with her. I don’t know whether the pagan nobleman who employed him in the first place had anything to do with their predicament but if he did, he must have been peeved because they survived (note to Roman persecutors of Christians, they all survive the boiling water – remember Cecilia?) and were beheaded under the orders of Emperor Diocletian.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

More Santo Stefano gorefest

By Elevenses, Santo Stefano, Talking art

Oh yes, the fresco cycle in Santo Stefano Rotondo is a real gorefest! The frescoes were created in around 1582 at the height of the Counter Reformation and meant to inspire Catholics to martyr themselves if necessary in the fight against Protestantism. There are reports of over-zealous would be missionaries flogging themselves to death in front of the frescoes so I suppose something worked.

santo stefano rotondo

Circignani and M. da Siena, The Martyrdom of St Cecilia, Santo Stefano Rotondo, 1581-2

Here’s St Cecilia. According to her legend, she was married against her will to a Roman pagan named Valarian. On her wedding day she heard angels singing and when it came to the moment that their marriage was to be consummated, she told Valarian that if he touched her that would not be good AT ALL. Angels can be pretty mean when it comes to looking after their own! On the other hand, she said, if he heeded her wishes he too could see angels. Somewhat surprisingly Valarian listened, had an angelic visitation and was persuaded to convert to Christianity. He loved it so much that he also converted his brother.

The enthusiastic new members of the flock preached Christianity whenever they could and were soon beheaded for their troubles. Cecilia, however, suffered even more. She was condemned to be boiled to death but after a day and a half in boiling water she wasn’t even tepid and an executioner was discharged to behead her. In many versions of the tale her severed head continued to preach for several days until she finally went to meet the angels who had so often sung to her. St Cecilia is now the patron saint of music.

The background to this fresco depicts the horrible sight of her husband and brother in law getting their heads chopped off. Just what you want in a church that has become hugely popular for concerts and weddings. St Cecilia must be delighted with all that music.

The story of St Cecilia is merely a warm up (sorry!) to the gorefest depicted in many of the other frescoes. How about this one of saints Bibiana, John and Paul?

Bibiana, John and Paul Santo Stefano Rotondo

Circignani and M. da Siena, The Martyrdom of Saint Artemius, John, Paul and Bibiana, Santo Stefano Rotondo, fresco, 1581-2

In the foreground, we see 3 dead saints on the ground and we know this because they have halos, there’s another saintly personage getting crushed, I was going to say to death but I feel he’s already a gonner (or at least I hope he is) and then in the background are heaps of cadavers and a burning ship with a cross that you can just about make out through the flames.

Many of the frescoes have similar scenes of genocide in the background which I think is meant to suggest the huge number of Christians that fell foul to the pagan regime and the number that were giving their lives for the cause during the Catholic Revival. It’s propaganda folks, but not as we know it.

But to the four in the foreground. The three on the grass in a nice neat row are Saints John, Paul and Bibiana. They have been intertwined apocryphally for centuries but the story of Bibiana is actually separate to that of John and Paul.

John and Paul, however, share a hagiography. These two saints were brothers and officers of the Roman army in the days of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine. They happily served in his daughter’s house until both she and her father died and Julian became Emperor. Julian returned to the cult of idols and paganism. Sigh!

Emperor Julian asked John and Paul to return to active service, they said ‘no thanks’ and they were decapitated secretly in their own garden to avoid an outrage. Julian then instigated a rumour that they had been exiled which didn’t go down too well because pagans started to get possessed by demons. When the son of their murderer was also possessed, the soldier went and prayed at their tomb at which point the demons fled his son’s body and he subsequently and unsurprisingly converted to Christianity, and wrote the story. Hurrah!

So who actually noticed that their heads have been severed from their bodies???

Before we get to squashed man, let’s talk about Bibiana. You might notice that squashed man’s eyes are quite literally popping out of his head looking at her but despite the best efforts of a very cruel lady, Bibiana remained a virgin when she was martyred.

There are two versions of the Bibiana myth; in both she’s the daughter of Christian parents and persecuted by Julian the Apostate hence the connection to John and Paul.

In the first myth Julian banishes her father, and her mother and sister subsequently die of natural causes and are buried in their house (under the floor boards?!) by Bibiana. Bibiana herself is subject to torture before she passes away. A couple of days later she’s laid to rest with her mother and sister by a priest called John (St John?) and the house was eventually consecrated as a church. It’s the site of St Bibiana in Rome.

In the other version, the two sisters survive their parents and are stripped of all their possessions. They don’t mind too much as they spend their days in fasting and prayer. Really peeved that hunger and deprivation had absolutely no effect on them, the Roman Governor summons them, and it is at this point that Bibiana’s sister falls down dead.

Bibiana, however, is tortured in this account as well. She’s held captive by a wicked woman called Rufina, who in tries to defile her virginity firstly by seductive persuasion and then by violence but that doesn’t work (I’m not sure what didn’t work or how it didn’t work but she remained a virgin). Enraged, the Roman governor ordered her to be tied to a pillar and flogged which was a torture that she endured with a smile on her face until she died.

Her body was then put in the open air to be torn apart by wild animals, but as you can see she was left intact and finally buried.

So who is pop-eye?  He’s Artemius, a Roman soldier also martyred under the reign of Julian the Apostate. He was renowned for his ability to cure maladies relating to the spine and testicles. Why has he suffered the indignity here of getting pulverised under a huge rock? Maybe to show a bit of immediacy; the fact that his bowels are spewing out and that his eyes have indeed popped out of head under the weight of the rock is meant to be a visceral reminder that the struggle was not yet over. Nice.

The video of the episode on St Cecilia can be viewed here.

The video of the episode on Saints Bibiana, John and Paul can be viewed here.

To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.