Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Sheltering Snow

At the beginning of the fourth century, in the city of Mérida, a young Spanish girl was martyred. During these early centuries of the new Christian faith, and the perceived threat which it presented to Imperial Rome and the established order, instances of - and opportunities for - dying for that faith were frequent enough. What perhaps is remarkable in the case of Eulalia is that, even at such a tender age (she was no more than twelve or fourteen at the time) she appararently actively sought her own martyrdom.

Knowing her daughter's declared willingness to make this supreme sacrifice, her mother attempted to hold Eulalia within the confines of her home. But her daughter escaped, found her way to the occupying Roman magistrate, and announced that she refused to sacrifice to the Roman deities. The instruments of torture were laid before her, and it was explained to her that all that she needed to do to avoid their use was to make a simple offering of a little salt and incense, which were then provided for her for that purpose. Eulalia remained resolute. The inevitable sentence was summarily executed. She was stripped. Her flesh was torn from her body with iron hooks, exposing bone. She was then staked, and burning torches were passed over her ragged flesh. Death finally came through suffocation from the inhaled smoke.

Legend steps in to elaborate upon history. At the moment of her death, a white dove appeared to issue from her mouth and ascend to heaven. When her mutilated body was cut down and laid upon the ground, a deep snow suddenly fell to clothe the broken and naked young corpse with a covering shroud of purest white. Redemption can take many forms. For Eulalia, it came in the form of the gently-falling snow so unexpected that the hardened soldiery, standing in the flakes of drifting white, were stunned to awed silence. Future canonization duly followed.

This is the story which the painting by Victorian artist John William Waterhouse (above) purports to portray. But if legend can elaborate upon history, then art, apparently, can elaborate upon both. The version of events as portrayed by Waterhouse would seem both accomplished and disturbing. Accomplished, because the artist has opted for a composition as dramatic as it is difficult to bring off, with its acute foreshortening of the principal figure of Eulalia, and its restrained and atmospheric palette of muted earth reds and cold grays. Of course Waterhouse was both an accomplished draughtsman and storyteller - as his hugely-popular Lady of Shalott, painted three years after his St Eulalia, testifies. But his treatment of Eulalia's martyrdom contains disquieting undercurrents.

The artist's model who posed for the young saint was clearly no girl at the threshold of her teen years, but a mature young woman (the inverted detail, above). And the powdery layer of snow - surely one of the central elements of the story - does anything but discreetly cover the lifeless half-nude body. Not even the most inoffensive suggestion of mortified flesh is apparent. Instead, the artist has opted for a symbolic flowering of spreading hair; an element that was already being considered in his preparatory sketch (below). That Eulalia had lustrous long tresses is known. But what is also known is that these were burned away by the torches. In these details - or rather, in the lack of them - Waterhouse presents us with a version of history which strays beyond being merely idealized to being actually sanitized. But for whose protection? For the artist's? For the sensibilities of his viewing public?

History already offered the artist the solution to this visual dilemma: the grievously mangled body of Eulalia was covered by the sheltering snow. And not the light dusting which Waterhouse shows, but a drift deep enough to make the body discernible only by its general outline. But it would seem that in his choice of a mature model, and in leaving that model unblemished and literally exposed, Waterhouse succumbed to the temptation to portray a whiff of mild Victorian *eroticism whose dubious inclusion was a betrayal of the very subject which he had chosen to portray.

Waterhouse was a master of such subtly suggestive treatments, and the studied slipped-off-the-shoulder costumes of such subjects as Psyche (the detail, above) must have had the thoughts of his Victorian audience racing with adventurous possibilities. But when he came to paint such a sensitive subject as Eulalia's martyrdom, was there not some small voice which said to him that such a voyeuristic treatment, however mild, was not merely inappropriate, but a really bad idea? Apparently not.

And the historical Eulalia? The passionate and intense sincerity of the young can burn more fiercely even than that of maturity. But is this enough to explain the young girl's fervor for, and active seeking out of, such a gruesome and horrifying death? And the Roman authorities and those who carried out their directives? Clearly such monstrous inhumanity is inexcusible in the name of any faith. But history sometimes becomes a mirror, inverting previous events. Almost exactly a century later, the horror which Eulalia suffered was again exemplified by the bestially cruel death - in a church at the hands of Christian monks - of Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the most enlightened and progressive pagan minds of her age. Eulalia had hardly begun her teen years when she died. Hypatia was forty five. Perhaps such terrible acts owe less to any perceived threats to a faith than they do to a dark and frenzied *misogyny.

Today, December 10, is Saint Eulalia's day.

Artist: John William Waterhouse
Work: Saint Eulalia, 1885
Medium: Oils
Location: The Tate Gallery, London

Artist: John William Waterhouse
Work: Study for Saint Eulalia c1885
Medium: Pen and ink with grey and brown wash heightened with white on paper
Location: The Tate Gallery, London

*This theme is also discussed in my post of November 2: 'Five Women and Four Serpents'.
*A hatred and loathing of women.

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