|Saint Margaret of Antioch,
Virgin and Martyr - Early 4th century
St. Margaret's is one of the many stories of virgins martyred after spurning the advances of wicked Roman officials. Because of her refusal and her Christian faith, the provost Olybrius has her tortured. At the end of the first day of torments she is thrown in prison and assailed by a demon in the shape of a dragon, from whom she saves herself by making the sign of the cross.
The Golden Legend refers to two versions of this miracle: in one St. Margaret's gesture saves her from being swallowed by the dragon; in the other, which the author calls apocryphal, she is first swallowed and then makes the sign of the cross and emerges from the beast.
The following day, after yet more tortures, the heavens open and St. Margaret is granted a crown, a sight which leads 5,000 pagans to convert. Olybrius finally puts an end to these affronts by having her beheaded.
St. Margaret's most common attribute is the dragon of her legend, shown either at her feet, as at left, or attempting to swallow the saint (example), or bursting as she emerges from it (example). She is often shown holding a crucifix (to image the gesture of the sign of the cross) and wearing the crown mentioned in the legend (example), though Zurbarán gives her a shepherdess's hat, crook, and bag. The long tresses seen at left are common in St. Margaret paintings and are usually blonde.
In the Golden Legend, St. Margaret's last request to God is that pregnant women who pray to her be granted an easy birth and a healthy child.
St. Margaret's reputation has had its ups and downs. In the 5th century Pope Gelasius declared her story to be apocryphal. But in the 9th she was included in Rabanus Maurus' Martyrology, and inclusion in the Golden Legend led to her great popularity in the middle ages and beyond. But that word "apocryphal" never quite went away, and today the Catholic Church no longer celebrates her feast.
Feast day: July 20 (suppressed in 1969 in the Catholic Church)
At left, 1475 French alabaster
Giovanni di Paolo painting identified as St. Margaret