This painting is first recorded in the English royal collection. It belonged to King Charles I (1600–1649) and was displayed alongside the King's most highly prized Titians at Whitehall. It is listed there in the inventory of 1639 drawn up by Abraham van der Doort, as hanging in the First Privy Lodging Room: ‘Done by Tichian/ Item the Picture of St Margarett with a little reed cross in her left hand triumphing over the Divell Being in a dragons Shape an intire figure Soe bigg as ye life In a wodden guilded frame’. The Saint Margaret hung in the principal room of Titians, with the early Pesaro presented to Peter (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp) and other remarkable works such as Venus with an Organist (fig. 1) and The Allocution of the Marquis del Vasto to his Troops (both Prado, Madrid); The Entombment of Christ, The Supper at Emmaus and the 'Allegory of Alfonso d'Avalos' (all three now at the Musée du Louvre, Paris); and Woman in a Fur (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).2
Soon after the King's execution, the decision was taken by Parliament to sell off his collections. Full inventories were drawn up and valuations given with a view to the money raised from their sale paying off the King's debts. The King's creditors were entitled to acquire pictures; others were paid in goods from Charles's estate. In the case of the Saint Margaret it was sold to John Embry, a royal plumber, whose name appears on the First List of the late King's servants and creditors comprising those most in need. Francis Haskell in his essay on Charles I's collection cites Embry's case as a representative example of a member of the King's retinue who had remained unpaid. The present work, which is listed in an inventory of pictures drawn up in September 1649, was valued at £100. As Haskell describes, Embry was owed £903 and was recompensed only partly in cash. To cover the remaining sum he was allowed to choose pictures to make up the value – among them the present painting of Saint Margaret.3 According to Nuttall, of the twenty-four pictures given to him as settlement of the debt, the Saint Margaret was the most important. Presumably Embry's objective was then to sell it as quickly as possible and convert it into cash. During the Commonwealth Embry became Oliver Cromwell's Surveyor-General of Works and subsequently, at the Restoration, found himself obliged to defend his position, returning a portion of the pictures to Charles II.4 The picture is next recorded in Hampshire, in the collection of Richard Norton (d. 1732), though it is not known how he acquired it. He may have inherited it from his grandfather Colonel Norton (d. 1692). The Saint Margaret then entered a British aristocratic collection where it remained until the mid-twentieth century.
The Saint Margaret is likely to have been begun at the same time as the Prado painting, which is generally recognised as the prime version of the composition and dated to the mid-1560s. Indeed it seems probable that the present work was painted alongside the version now in the Prado, with Titian utilising his workshop to block in areas of the painting but finishing the key areas of the painting himself. The expressive power of Titian’s later style is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the lyrical and atmospheric depiction of the city of Venice on fire in the background. On the skyline the campanile of St Mark glows in fiery orange and pinks, whilst the stormy waves of the sea are animated by dark blue and green brushstrokes. In the sky billowing smoke rises upwards to intermingle with the clouds in a passage of painting that presages that of the Impressionists, more than three centuries later.
The x-radiograph reveals much more vigorous application of paint in places that now appear rather dark and flat, including the area to the left of the head now covered with brown paint, and changes to the structure of the dragon, as well as modifications to the city skyline. A photograph of the painting taken at the time of the Harcourt sale in 1948 shows the larger extent of the canvas at the top edge of the composition before it was reduced, at some point before 1958. The composition was then more closely comparable to that of the Prado version.
As is characteristic with Titian’s late works, the darker tones, fiery landscape and summary handling of the paint in the present work create a sense of drama that is entirely fitting to the narrative. Margaret of Antioch was a legendry virgin martyr. She refused a proposal of marriage from the prefect of Antioch and was cruelly tortured and imprisoned as a result. Satan allegedly appeared to her in the form of a dragon and devoured her. The cross she held in her hand irritated the monster’s insides and the dragon burst open allowing her to escape unharmed, only to be subsequently decapitated. Panofsky notes that Titian’s decision to depict Saint Margaret and the dragon in an outdoor setting suggests he was using an apocryphal version of the legend.5
Titian’s Saint Margaret is conceived with a profound understanding of the dramatic potential of the scene. She is a triumphant figure whose body, depicted in dramatic contrapposto, fills the entire right-hand side of picture plane, almost touching the right-hand and lower margins. Prof. Paul Joannides has noted Titian's deliberate comparison with Raphael and Giulio Romano's versions of the same subject (Giulio's Saint Margaret was in Venice in the early sixteenth-century, in the collection of Zuananonio Venier, today housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Titian's Margaret surpasses the serenity of Giulio's interpretation, which lacks the intensity of expression and setting. Titian's saint is painted in a myriad of colours and her luminous light green tunic with its bright white sleeves and rose pink veil stands out from the more earthy, brown based tones of the rest of the canvas. The dragon that occupies the bottom resister of the canvas is predominantly painted in brown and blackish hues and the only flashes of colour are the strokes of red and white delineating his vicious mouth. The implied movement in Saint Margaret’s twisting body contrasts to the stolidity of the rock face behind her and she emerges from the picture plane as an impressive figure, trampling the dragon underfoot and holding her cross aloft.
The painting was inspected on 28 September 2012 by Prof. Peter Humfrey and Dr Nicholas Penny. Both believe it to have been painted as a second version of the Prado picture and with a significant degree of studio assistance. Prof. Humfrey saw the painting again in person on 27 October 2017. In his opinion the Saint Margaret is a picture produced under Titian’s direction in his workshop, with the execution largely due to the workshop but parts, such as the landscape in the background, possibly involving the direct involvement of Titian himself. Prof. Joannides inspected the painting on 26 October 2017; he maintains his view, published in 2004, that it is by Titian and his studio. The Royal Collection is currently working on an online reconstruction of the collection of Charles I at Whitehall Palace, which will include the present work. We are grateful to all those cited for their comments. In particular we wish to thank Lucy Whitaker and Niko Munz at the Royal Collection for their help in compiling this catalogue entry.
1. P00455. See H.E. Wethey, The Paintings of Titian, London 1969, vol. I, cat no. 117, pp. 141–42. One other treatment of the subject is recorded, now in the Escorial, a painting sent to Philip in October 1552, today is in very poor condition, making it difficult to determine the extent of the workshop's participation (210 x 170 cm.; Humfrey 2007, no. 187).
2. See Millar 1958–60, pp. 14–16.
3. See Nuttall 1965, p. 303 and ff. In the record of the sale the pictures acquired in this way are shown as having been 'sold'.
4. Six pictures according to Nuttall; 9 according to Brotton; see Brotton 2006, p. 319. Brotton states that Titian's Saint Margaret had been sold to Don Alonso de Cárdenas, Spanish Ambassador to Philip IV. However the picture is not listed in 'A Record of the Paintings at Somerset House, which belonged to the King and Queen, that were sold to the Lord Ambassador of Spain', see A.J. Loomie, 'New Light on the Spanish Ambassador's Purchases from Charles I's Collection 1649-53', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 52, 1989, pp. 257-67.
5. E. Panofsky, Problems in Titian: Mostly Iconographic, London 1969, pp. 34–35. Indeed, Dr. Michel Weemans, curator of Une image peut en cacher une autre, Paris, Grand Palais, 2009, has speculated (private communication to the owner) that the presence of anthropomorphic shapes in the form of dragons’ heads that he detects in the rocks surrounding the saint may allude to the legend of the Lernaean Hydra – the saint having overcome the dragon only to be faced with a proliferation of new threats around her. If so, this would suggest an additional level of involvement in the design of this version on the part of the artist.
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