St. Eulalia, Virgin Martyr (4th Century): The Iconography

St. Eulalia of Mérida was tortured and burned to death on December 10, 304, during the persecution of Diocletian, and her story was told later in the same century by Prudentius in his Peristephanon.

St. Eulalia of Barcelona, the patron saint of that city, was martyred on February 12 of the same year. In the seventh century Bishop Quiricus of Barcelona published a poem on the Barcelonan Eulalia that was identical with Prudentius' work. It is quite possible that the two saints are actually one and the same.

Prudentius' story is so gruesome that modern readers might consider it a lurid and sadistic male fantasy, as it surely is in the Waterhouse painting of 1885.  But many of Prudentius' readers would have been alive at the time of the great persecution, and it would have been in his interest to tell a story of, in Aristotle's phrase, "the kind of thing that can happen."

Further, contrasting Prudentius' work with Waterhouse's helps us recognize the former's more noble purpose. In Waterhouse, St. Eulalia lies dead and prone, her  lustrous body exposed to the elements and the view of gawking boys. The lightly falling snow emphasizes her pallor and helplessness, as do the doves who go about their business in the open spaces around her body. But in Prudentius there is just one dove, white as snow and explicitly interpreted as her soul, which emerges triumphantly from her mouth at the moment of her death and rises with swift assurance to Heaven. And Prudentius shows us the thickly fallen snow before we learn that her body lies beneath it – taking the place, the poet tells us, of a linen cloak.

Indeed, Prudentius' classical verse functions like that snow, enmantling the saint in rhetorical luminosity and witnessing that she is emphatically not an object of either prurience or pity.  On the contrary, his St. Eulalia amazes with her vigor and daring. As the flames roar around her and consume her long hair, she is said to drink them in with her mouth, the very mouth from which the dove will break forth triumphant in the following verse.

Even in the 14th-century Palma de Mallorca altarpiece that shows St. Eulalia naked in her torments (now much multiplied), the great size and dignity of the central figure of the saint, along with the stylization of gesture in the episodes, go a long way to raise the effect well above the prurient.

It is only in the Renaissance, when artists looked for inspiration to the art favored by St. Eulalia's very persecutors, that frankly sexual depictions such as that of Bartolomé Ordoñez become acceptable.

Medieval hagiography was influenced by the ninth-century Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie, in which the fire is incapable of burning the saint and she is consequently put to death by the sword.  The iconography retains a few features from Prudentius' story, such as the dove and the long hair, but in the high and late middle ages St. Eulalia is seen with a cross saltire. The palm of martyrdom is of course customary. She is also seen at times with a crown, which would be consistent with Prudentius' insistence on her noble birth, or with a book.

Feast day: December 10 (Eulalia of Mérida) and February 12 (Eulalia of Barcelona)

Shown here, "St. Eulalia" - Barcelona Cathedral

Another  image:
"Saint Eulalia" - Village church of Santa Ojala

    Prudentius, Peristephanon, Carmen III (Cache)
       Translation by Robert J. Baker
    La Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie - Translation by Richard Stracke