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St Margaret of Antioch


This French Gothic oak panel of St Margaret retains much of its original polychrome, including the words Sainte Marguerite written in red along the base.  She is seen emerging from the side of a dragon, hands clasped in prayer, beneath a flamboyant Gothic arch of c.1500.

St Margaret of Antioch was one of the most popular saints in the Middle Ages although she probably never existed and her somewhat colourful legend was pronounced apocryphal by the pope in 494.  Over 200 medieval churches in England alone are dedicated to her but in 1969 her cult was finally banned by the Church.

She was, supposedly, the daughter of a pagan priest in Antioch; her wet-nurse baptized her and her father disowned her.  Left to fend for herself she became a shepherdess and attracted the attentions of Antioch’s Roman governor, Olibrius.  Unable to persuade her to marry him or become his mistress Olibrius resorted to violence and finally imprisoned her.  In the jail she was confronted by Satan in the form of a dragon.  She prayed and made the sign of the cross but the dragon swallowed her regardless.  However, the strength of her prayers and the cross itself caused the dragon’s entrails to burst apart and Margaret emerged entirely unscathed from her ordeal.  She subsequently continued her life preaching and converting people to Christianity with such success that the Emperor Diocletian finally had her beheaded.  Before she died she made a promise to help all women in labour.  Consequently she is the patron saint of pregnant women.

Jan van Eyck’s painting of The Marriage of Arnolfini of 1434 includes a small figure of St Margaret carved on the bedpost finial.  It was Margaret’s voice that Joan of Arc believed she heard encouraging her to go to the support of the French king.