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 Proven├že 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 Proven├žal 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

>Monday of Holy Week: St. Mary Magdalen

>Because this is Holy Week, I will be sharing the Gospel Readings for the day with my readers, along with a piece of art that provides some reflection on that particular reading. Today we read about how St. Mary Magdalen anointed Jesus while at dinner, and wiped his feet with her hair:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.

There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him.

Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.

Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came, not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus also to death, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.

Gospel of St. John 12: 1 – 11

Below we see a painting of St. Mary Magdalene dating from around 1490 by the Florentine artist Piero di Cosimo. Cosimo is one of those Old Masters whose style changed so many times during his career, as he absorbed influences from those around him, that sometimes it is difficult to identify his work. In this particular case, clearly Leonardo da Vinci was holding sway over Piero’s brush during the time this panel was painted.

I want to draw the reader’s attention to the small jar that is seen standing on the table at the Magdalen’s left elbow, as she studies the Scriptures. The presence of a particular object in a work of Christian art can often help us, the viewer, to identify who is being portrayed. In this case, we know that this is an imagined portrait of St. Mary Magdalen because she is shown with the jar of nard which she used to anoint Jesus, as described in the Gospel reading today. Sometimes, in representations of the Crucifixion, she is shown at the foot of the cross along with her jar, so as to distinguish her from the Virgin Mary and the other women who accompany Jesus to Golgotha.

Imaginary religious portraiture, as opposed to the portrayal of scenes from the Bible, often allowed the artist to try to develop something more about the psychology of the saint. These more intimate portrayals, as opposed to painting the actual scene of washing the feet of Jesus, allowed the gentleman or lady who owned this painting to reflect quietly and in private on the entire life of the saint depicted, and their relationship to Christ. We all know from the Gospels how the Magdalen was there from near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and all the way through to the end, as well as His Resurrection. Her quiet contemplation of God’s Word in this picture should remind us to take some time during this Holy Week, and reflect on these monumental events in salvation history.

St. Mary Magdalen – Piero di Cosimo (c. 1490)
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome