St. Eulalia


Artistic analysis and commentary on paintings by pre-Raphaelite artists.


St Eulalia by John William Waterhouse is the most magnificently evocative painting. I simply adore it. When I saw it at the Tate Britain for the first time it brought tears to my eyes. Eulalia, in the foreground of the painting, was a twelve year old girl who was martyred in the fourth century (AD 304) in Barcelona for refusing to worship Roman gods. Diocletian was Emperor at the time and had ordered the persecution of Christians who did not offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. Eulalia endured hours of torture – her body was torn with iron hooks and her breasts were set alight, until she was finally suffocated as a result of the smoke and flames issuing from her burning body. Legend reveals that upon Eulalia’s death a white dove flew from her mouth and ascended into heaven as miraculously it began to snow. Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, who was a Roman Christian poet, wrote an account of Euralia’s martyrdom. The account is contained in Liber Peristephanon (Crowns of Martyrdom) which is a collection of 14 lyric poems on Spanish and Roman martyrs. Liber 3 is the story of St Eulalia – a story of courage and unfailing faith:

Straight away then, executioners twain
Tore at the flesh of her rush-slender breasts.
Then did the claw at her maidenly flanks
Strike on both sides as it cut to the bone.
Meanwhile Eulalia counted the marks.

‘See how your name’s written on me, O Lord.
How it delights me these letters to read,
Which are the mark of your victories, O Christ!
And to speak your holy name for itself
Here is the red of my blood that’s been drawn’.

Waterhouse has chosen to portray the horror of Eulalia’s martyrdom with the use of metaphor and symbol and has avoided a literal depiction of her broken and disfigured body. Instead, the artist uses the red cloth draped around Eulalia as a symbol of her spilled blood and in this way he makes reference to the pain and torture she endured for the sake of her faith. The startling image of the red cloak juxtaposed against the stark whiteness of the snow boldly asserts the destruction of the virginal Eulalia at the hands of ruthless torturers. Waterhouse wishes to draw the viewer’s attention away from the physical horror of Eulalia’s martyrdom and draws focus to the end result. Her soul, signified by the dove (in accordance with the legend) transcends to heaven showing that God has honoured Eulalia for her faith. Eulalia’s body lies exposed and vulnerable in the foreground of the painting as the soldiers are seen to be standing guard in the background, impervious to the tragedy that has just unfolded before them, thus emphasising the callous and unforgiving nature of those enforcing Diocletian’s decree. In the background are also onlookers who appear to talk amongst themselves, discussing the tragedy that has befallen the young girl. A tone of dejection is evoked by the hunched posture of the individual at the top of the stairs. The positioning of Eulalia’s figure so prominently in the foreground and the positioning of the other characters in the background suggests that Eulalia looks not for edification from man but from God. Eulalia has exposed the sinful nature of man – particularly those who have participated in her death, either by committing the acts of violence themselves or by passively looking on. The painting sends out a message proclaiming the beauty of the sacrificial act and the viewer is reminded of Jesus’ act of sacrifice – His life for the sins of mankind. Waterhouse, in his painting, suggests that the faithful will be rewarded.