The Portrayal of Martyrdom

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The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine


An etching depicting Felicitas of Rome

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Painting of Mary and Child with Saints Felicity and Perpetua


Drawing for the martyrdom of the four saints

Upon examination of the items we have in our collections, there's a distinctive pattern that I noticed. That is, that there are two ways of depicting martyrs in illustrations and paintings. This could be symbolic of how the Pagans and other people who did not support Christianity may have viewed martyrs, and, in contrast how Christians viewed the very same martyrs. More specifically, there are some carvings, prints, and illustrations, that depict Christian martyrs in a particularly graphic way, with their heads cut off or in the midst of death. These could be representations of how the Romans viewed the martyrs as simple nuisances. in contrast, there are paintings or other artwork that depict the martyrs beautifully, or with the appearance of an angel somewhere in the artwork, that implies the holiness that Christians admired in these martyrs. It's pretty interesting, no? For example, this etching called the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, shows an angel in the upper left corner, and Saint Catherine, in the midst of her death sentence, still has her head. This not only ignores the graphic representations that some artists promoted with their artwork of martyrdom, but it also shows that Saint Catherine's faith was not in vain, that it was being answered, right at the moment of her death.

The second image is another etching, portraying the exact opposite of what the other artist was hoping to achieve in showing an angel flying torward the waiting martyr Saint Catherine. This etching shows Felicitas, but she is surrounded by carnage, with no angel in sight. Her own sons lay dead at her feet, and the viewer can almost feel the despair the etching is trying to convey. It implies that, not only was Felicitas's faith fruitless, but that there are also horrible and bloody consequences for her actions and devotion to her religion. 

The third image depicts Perpetua and Felicitas. It's beautiful, and it obviously implies that their faith was rewarded by their being in heaven alongside Mary and her child. This image is synonymous with Christian ideals, that is, that their faith in God will be rewarded upon their death by finding a place in heaven. The angels at the top, the haloes around each of their heads, and the presence of the Virgin Mary and Jesus as a baby all align with Christianity, and shows that Perpetua's and Felicitas's martyrdom was rewarded. Thus, we can say that this painting portrayed the other view of martyrs: the Christian side.

The last image shows where the whole "two ways of portraying martyrs" thing gets a little tricky. The image is pretty graphic, with two of four martyrs already decapitated. But there's an angel in the middle of the drawing, implying that their faith is not being ignored. This image originates from the Renaissance era, thus giving us a context that means that the image was probably intended to convey faith. But the image itself seems to depict that yes, faith will be rewarded, but there were also horrific consequences (that is, death) for the martyrs of Pagan times. Interesting, right?