37.2 cm x 30.5 cm (14 5/8 in. x 12 in.)
(Antwerp, Belgium, 1546 - circa 1611, Prague, Czech Republic)
Medium and Support:
Oil on wood panel
Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1984
Beautiful, pious, and able to wear the “crown of martyrdom,” the Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Ursula are prime subjects for devotional painting. According to "The Golden Legend," a popular medieval text on the lives of the saints, Catherine converted multitudes using her great wisdom and erudition. She holds the sword used for her own beheading in one hand and a book in the other. She also stands over a Roman emperor who attempted to kill her on a spiked wheel. Likewise, Margaret stands triumphant over her enemy, a demon dragon, whom she defeated by making the sign of the cross. (This action takes material form as the wooden cross in her left hand.) Ursula is shown, not with her enemy, but with a crowd of fellow martyrs, whom she led during persecution.
From the complex folds of the saints’ drapery to a delicate rendering of jewelry, flower petals, and even toes, Bartholomaeus Spranger’s interest in detail connects the artist to his Netherlandish roots and a Northern Renaissance style of painting. But it also draws the viewer into a closer study of the saints. For instance, notice the prominent pearl on Margaret’s forehead attached to strands of smaller pearls in her hair. According to the "Legend," the saint’s name corresponds with the Latin word for a pearl, margarita, a “precious gem [that shines] white, small, and endowed with virtue.” In like manner, says the "Legend," “Saint Margaret was shining white by her virginity, small by her humility, and endowed with the power to work miracles.” For viewers familiar with her story, a study of the painting’s details could lead to a meditation on the saint’s character.