St. Martha and the Monster

Dear Reader, because The Courtier has been such a mess of viral infection this past wee, while still managing to hold his day job, blogging has been somewhat sub-par to his usual standards, for which he heartily apologizes. This morning, for example, he found himself in court arguing various points of law – successfully – but still managed to feel as though he was having an out-of-body experience from whatever remnants of flu or cold he is suffering from. And of course, in preparing for court this morning the thought of writing the morning’s blog post went right out of his cloudy head Not to allow you, gentle reader, to think that he would forgo an opportunity to afford you some amusement in the form of artistic education, and particularly with respect to things Catalan, The Courtier will draw your attention, briefly, to the legendary Tarasque, a very appropriate beastie to be considered on the Feast of St. Martha.

The Tarasque is a mythical animal out of the medieval bestiary, and a very strange one it is, too. It has a head like a lion, multiple legs, a turtle shell body, and a scorpion tail; it was supposedly the offspring of the monster Leviathan mentioned in the Book of Job. The Tarasque resided in the depths of the Rhone in Provençe and terrorized the locals, killing anyone who tried to conquer her.

Because at one time Catalonia ruled over a large Mediterranean empire, which included much of Southern France, this myth became part of Catalan as well as Provençal culture. In fact, The Courtier has a figural pillow of the Tarasque, known as the “Tarasca” in Catalan, which he picked up at the Barcelona City History Museum a few years ago, sitting on his window bench. She was one of the best monsters to come out of Voragine’s “Lives of the Saints” better known as “The Golden Legend”.

Readers may or may not be familiar with “The Golden Legend”, a collection of myths and legends about the lives of the saints. The Courtier is of the firm opinion that some of the tales contained in the work are based on fact, while others are clearly flights of fancy. No matter: those who do not know it should be familiar with it for the purposes of understanding art history. Many of the weird and wonderful scenes depicted in Christian art come from the pages of this work.

One of the stories told in the Golden Legend is that St. Martha, along with her sister St. Mary Magdalen and brother St. Lazarus, was expelled from Palestine and arrived in Southern France after the Ascension. It was there that St. Martha, redoubtable woman that she was, decided to take on the Tarasque:

There was that time upon the river of Rhone, in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon, a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side, and could not be beaten with cast of stones ne with other armour, and was as strong as twelve lions or bears; which dragon lay hiding and lurking in the river, and perished them that passed by and drowned ships. He came thither by sea from Galicia, and was engendered of Leviathan, which is a serpent of the water and is much wood [mad], and of a beast called Bonacho, that is engendered in Galicia. And when he is pursued he casts out of his belly behind, his ordure, the space of an acre of land on them that follow him, and it is bright as glass, and what it toucheth it burneth as fire.

To whom Martha, at the prayer of the people, came into the wood, and found him eating a man. And she cast on him holy water, and showed to him the cross, which anon was overcome, and standing still as a sheep, she bound him with her own girdle, and then was slain with spears and glaives [lances] of the people.

The dragon was called of them that dwelled in the country Tarasconus, whereof, in remembrance of him that place is called Tarasconus, which tofore was called Nerluc, and the Black Lake, because there be woods shadowous and black.

Admittedly, this level of Lara Croft-level action is perhaps a lot to expect from what we know of the – ahem – Martha Stewart of Bethany, but there it is.

To this day the Tarasque (in a giant costume form) still makes appearances in feast day celebrations in Catalan cities such as Barcelona and Tarragona, as well as in Southern France. She is usually seen spitting fireworks and chasing unwary revelers. And the tale has also inspired some unusual and admittedly rather obscure images of St. Martha, whose feast we celebrate today. Such stories, while apocryphal at best, not only inspired the imaginations of artists in centuries past, but are also wonderful teaching opportunities today on the power of good over evil.

Barcelona’s Municipal Tarasca, out on the prowl

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