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Saint Martha Taming the Tarasque and Preaching to the Townspeople, from the Hours of Henry VIII
Jean Poyer (ca. 1500)
Saints and dragons
In Christian lore and legend there are several saints associated with dragons. Saint George and Saint Michael the Archangel come first to mind, for their iconography would not be complete were they not represented subduing the monster. But women are no less associated with the beast. One reads in the book of Revelation that the Dragon threatened the Virgin of the Apocalypse as it attempted to devour her Child. Saint Margaret of Antioch was herself swallowed by a dragon while in prison, yet she burst forth from its stomach undamaged by wielding the cross she bore in her hands. Then there is Saint Martha, the foremost hostess found the New Testament. How did she leave the toil of her kitchen in Bethany to find herself conquering dragons in a faraway land, as pictured in this French illustrated breviary that was allegedly the property of King Henry VIII? In the mist of history and the frontiers of memory, where fact is illuminated by fable, that story unfolds….
Faith comes to Provence
It appears in The Golden Legend, a series of oral and written traditions that were gathered and recorded by the 13th century Dominican James of Voragine, in order to serve as an aid to preachers. A persecution of Christians had ensued soon after Christ ascended into heaven. This caused certain well-known figures of the New Testament to be expelled from their homeland.
Martha, her brother Lazarus, and her sister Mary were placed in a boat along with a few companions, which was then set adrift into the Mediterranean Sea. As the boat was without sails, rudder, or food, it is presumed that their persecutors intended that they be driven insane and cannibalize each other. But by God’s grace their boat was guided to Marseilles, where they disembarked and walked to the region of Aix; there they preached to the inhabitants and converted them.
In time Martha ventured by herself to the Rhône region between Arles and Avignon. There she was approached by the townspeople, who had been plagued by a terrible dragon named Tarasque. The beast lurked at the river’s edge, reportedly half animal and half fish, greater in size than an ox or a horse, with sharp horns and teeth. But this was no mere dragon. According to the legend it was the offspring of the fabled Leviathan, the great monster of the ocean mentioned in Scripture, and the Bonnacon, a mythical beast that supposedly attacked its pursuers by expelling massive quantities of fiery dung from its behind.
So into the dark and shadowy forest Martha ventured, looking for Tarasque. Armed only with holy water and a cross, she found him there, munching on a man. Martha took her aspergillum and sprinkled the beast with holy water. This stunned Tarasque and caused it to enter into a catatonic trance. Martha further subdued the monster by tying her cincture around the beast’s neck. The townspeople then fell upon the immobilized dragon and killed it with spears and stones.
The illustration conflates these actions into one cohesive picture. Tarasque emerges from his murky cave. From his gaping maw the legs of his unfortunate victim protrude. In one hand Martha holds the bucket of holy water, and in the other she grips the cincture lassoed around the monster’s neck. Men from the town attack the beast, one with a spear and another with a crossbow. The stones scattered on the ground show that the townspeople all played a part in killing the beast that Martha subdued and delivered to them. Thereafter the people were converted to the Faith and named their town Tarascon to commemorate the monster that Martha overcame. To this day, on her feast, they parade a papier mâché dragon through the streets led by a maiden with a rope.
The resuscitation of a drowned man
Another account in the Golden Legend states that Martha was preaching to a group of people on the bank of the Rhône River near Avignon. A young man who was on the other side of the river saw her and was so eager to hear her words that he jumped into the river and attempted to swim across. But the force of the current overcame him, and he was drowned. The bottom illustration recounts that scene. The body of the enthusiast floats facedown in the raging tide as Martha preaches to the people. But the story ends on a happy note. According to legend, his body was found a day later and laid at Martha’s feet. She prostrated herself on the ground in the form of a cross, and prayed aloud, “O Adonai, Lord Jesus Christ, who once did raise to life my brother Lazarus, and who did dwell in my house, look down upon the faith of those who stand about me, and raise up this youth!” She then took the man by the hand. He rose up at once, and he was baptized.
Martha settled in Tarascon and formed a community of pious women around her.Her legends suggest that she was the only female saint in early Gaul to have established such a spiritual settlement. In contrast to her sister Mary, who sat quietly at Christ’s feet, Martha has come to represent the active life. Like the Virgin Mary, who carried Jesus in her womb, Martha invited Jesus into her house. Like the Apostle Peter, her attributes are keys, but in her case they are domestic keys. Just as Peter made a profession of faith in Luke 9:20, so Martha made a similar confession in John 11:27. For this they are seen as progenitors of the Church.
While Martha’s story bridges Scripture and tradition, her tomb at Tarascon became the site of many miracles for the great and the lowly. Clovis, king of France, was cured there. But for those who have been relegated to scullery work while the partygoers celebrate outside: know that once there was a kitchen maiden who subdued a dragon and brought a dead man back to life.
The Prophecy Fulfilled before Our Eyes
Jozef Israëls (1824-1911)
Who still reads the great French prophets of the 20 th century? Who still reads Péguy, Claudel, Bernanos, Saint-Exupéry? Each, from his viewpoint, railed against the coming of the same abomination: “their” civilization was dying. While this civilization ought to have been perfected, so that the Kingdom of God on earth could truly grow, all that had constituted its genius was soon to vanish. Materialism, hedonism, self-preoccupation (today it would be called “personal development”) was about to submerge beauty, goodness, and truth, along with the true Faith and the ancient virtues. The sign of the coming of the end of this world was that terrifying metropolises were already reducing rural, pastoral civilization to objects fit to fill their museums. Since then, this prophecy has been fulfilled. The fertile ground that nurtured our civilization has gone. Villages have been deserted. Human relationships have been virtualized. Faith and devotion are fading. The moral com- pass that, far from constraining free men, once guided them, has been distorted. The poor, humble and proud, with that magnificent nobility celebrated by Thornton Wilder, have disappeared from the social landscape.
The charming pastoral scene on Magnificat ’s cover was painted by Dutchman Jozef Israëls in 1864. It highlights an anguishing and mysterious aspect of this prophecy: in the coming new civilization— meaning ours now—the Word of God would no longer immediately touch hearts and minds. He who, directly or indirectly, has never worked the good earth by the sweat of his brow, never experienced seedtimes and harvests, never tended sheep or saved a stray lamb, finds himself de facto distanced from the Gospel and its parables. Let us not be saddened: we find ourselves spurred on to deepen our understanding of the Word of God, to improve our prayerful reading of it—and let us not forget that our Lord Jesus Christ remains present to the world even until his return in glory. But why not take advantage of our vacations in the countryside to rediscover, with a touch of nostalgia, a drop of the sap that nourished the fervor of our fathers in faith?
Shepherds praying (1864), Jozef Israëls (1824-1911), Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, USA. © akg-images.