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Gallery of Christian Female Martyrs

Before you enter the picture exhibition, a few explanations and disclaimers are in order:

Of course there are more female martyrs than those few depicted on the following pages. But only for these I have been able to find good artistic renderings. But what does "good" mean in this context?

Consider for example the following three paintings showing St. Catharina of Alexandria:

St. Catharina by Lotto

This painting by Lorenzo Lotto shows St. Catherine in heaven. She is certainly beautiful, but except for the palm branch in her hand nothing tells us about her martyrdom.

St. Catharina by Provost

This one is better: Jan Provost at least shows us Catharina's death by beheading. But this painting merely recites a standard topos of hagiography: that of the unquenchable saint. Such a saint is imprisoned for her faith and tortured. When she remains steadfast, her tormentors try to kill her in some cruel and ignoble fashion — drowning, burning, presenting to lions, etc. — but she miraculously survives. Only when the exasperated executioners finally use the sword (the noble weapon), they succeed.

Consequently, there are many paintings showing a splendidly clothed maiden kneeling in prayer before a swordsman. There is perhaps a fleeting hint of previous tortures (here a wheel in the background), but otherwise the saints are rather impersonal and interchangeable.

Moreover: Why would the authorities provide such an expensive dress to a worthless follower of a despised new cult?

St. Catharina by Gallego

This is it! In Fernando Gallego's painting the maiden has not been spared torture and humiliation: She has been led naked to the place of execution, watched by many spectators who are thrilled by her nudity as well as by the prospect of seeing her suffer.

But is this realistic or merely the artist's phantasy? The torturers of all ages tried to break their victims' spirits by humiliating them, and erotic violence has always been one of the means. Furthermore, it is a historical fact that prisoners condemned to die in the Roman “games” were often presented naked to the crowd—even women. In this sense, Gallego's painting is certainly more realistic than that of Provost.

As fas ar the viewers are concerned, this picture is certainly better in capturing their interest and creating sympathy for the maiden (as well as other emotions) than the other two.

Let us face it: A good picture of the martyrdom of a saint contains a strong component of humiliation and erotic violence!

But good depictions of martyrdom are rare*. If you know more pieces of art suitable for this gallery, please write, and you may win a place in our Hall of Fame!

* Clarification: The number of good depictions of female martyrdom is large enough to make one doubt the moral integrity of many generations of Christians. Still, such depictions are a minority among the vast number of pictures of Christian saints, and even those that exist are often hard to find.

Whether the display of erotic violence reflects inclinations of the artists or their patrons, was meant to emphasize the steadfastness of the martyr women, or acted as an “eye catcher” that made the viewers contemplate the martyrdom and the moral qualities of those women is a question that certainly deserves further investigation.

Move forward to the anteroom of the crypt!

Move back to the entrance!

Many pictures in this gallery have been taken from other Internet sites. If you see one for which you hold the copyright and which you do no want to be displayed here, please write!

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