St Margaret of Antioch, Francisco de Zurbaran, c. 1630-4
© National Gallery, London
According to legend, St Margaret lived as a shepherdess. One day she was swallowed by Satan in the form of a dragon, but he was so stung by her crucifix that he regurgitated her unharmed.
Looking for a seat in the National Gallery one day, I think I was attracted by St. Margaret's striking shepherdess costume -- the sweeping curves of her straw hat and the vivid colours of her 'alforjas' or saddle-bag. At first her look of disdain reminded me of a very prissy head-prefect, definitely an irritating person to live with. Gradually, absorbed in Zurbaran's portrayal, I understood why tyrants felt compelled to execute so many christian saints, who were so uncompromising in their faith. Then I noticed the dragon's head, a repulsive, shapeless horror, and realised it represented the essence of pure evil which all those martyred saints condemned and despised. A decorative 'picture-book' painting at first glance (and the artist also used the same model as the Madonna), but Zurbaran has given it great depth of meaning once you look more closely.