Two Views of the Martyrdom of Eulàlia of Mérida

Tracey J. Kinney

Eulàlia of Mérida

As with many of the early Christian martyrs very little of Eulàlia’s life story can be confirmed; there is even debate as to whether Eulàlia of Mérida and Eulàlia of Barcelona are the same person. Most sources accept that she was martyred during the Great Persecution launched by Diocletian and Maximian as they consolidated their hold on the Imperial thrones of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. 304 seems the most likely date of her martyrdom. The Christian poet Prudentius (348-405) tells that Eulàlia (often Saint Eulàlia of Mérida) was martyred at the age of 12 or 13 for refusing to acknowledge the Roman gods and openly denying the authority of the Western Emperor Maximian. In Prudentius’ account, Eulàlia was sentenced to death by the Roman court, her flesh torn from her sides, after which she was set on fire. Eventually the smoke and flames are said to have suffocated her. Prudentius also wrote that a dove flew from her body at the moment of Eulàlia’s death.

Eulàlia’s martyrdom has been chronicled by many artists over the years. The images that follow were created well over a millennia after the subject’s death. The first, by Bernat Martorell, dates to approximately 1442-1445; the second, by John William Waterhouse, to 1885. Martorell (d. 1452) was a Catalan artist who painted a great many altarpieces and illuminated manuscripts; his work is often characterized as late Gothic in style. Waterhouse, usually considered among the Victorian Romantic painters, drew inspiration from both classical and literary themes. “The Martyrdom of Saint Eulalia” is widely regarded as one of his most successful works; at the time of its exhibition, however, the portrayal of Eulàlia created considerable controversy.


Figure 1.6 Martyrdom of Saint Eulalia by Bernat Martorell ~1442-1445. Altarpiece: Tempera & gold leaf on wood, 1.32m x .93m, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Click on the + for analytical prompts


Figure 1.7 Saint Eulalia by John William Waterhouse c. 1885. Oil on canvas, 1.89m x 1.18m, Tate Britain, London. Click on the + for analytical prompts


Questions for Consideration

  1. How do these two images differ in their presentation of Eulàlia’s martyrdom?
  2. What does each image tell us about the time period in which the painting was created?
  3. Are there similar themes in the two images of martyrdom?
  4. To what extent do these images of martyrdom confirm or call into question the themes discussed earlier in this module regarding the role and importance of martyrdom during the late Roman period?


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