The small size and rectangular shape of this panel indicate that it once formed part of a predella – that is the lowest section of an altarpiece. Predellas usually illustrated events from the lives of the saints depicted in the main section of the altarpiece. The saint who is about to be beheaded here, for her Christian faith, has been identified as Saint Margaret of Antioch. This is on account of the cross-shape she has formed with her thumbs as she prays, which may refer to the legend that Saint Margaret fought off the devil – in the form of a dragon – by making the sign of the cross with her hands. Her legend also recounts that she asked to pray before her execution. Starnina, a Florentine painter, has chosen to show the moment at which the executioner is just about to strike. This panel has been connected to an altarpiece in the Martin von Wagner Museum in Würzburg which includes a panel showing Saint Margaret of Antioch, who is shown with a slain dragon at her feet, with Saint Philip.
Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina was an important early fifteenth-century Florentine painter who also worked in Toledo and Valencia in the 1390s.
An executioner holds his sword in both hands high above his head, ready to strike; his robes are hitched into to his belt to aid his swoop. A woman, identified as a saint by her halo, kneels in prayer. She appears completely serene, an impression that is emphasised by the way the fabric of her skirt ripples along the ground in neat waves. The stark, rocky setting suits the subject. The execution takes place, as was customary, outside the city, the walls of the fortified town visible in the background. The arid landscape is broken only by a yellow river that encloses the scene.
A crowd has gathered to watch, rows of spectators are pushing through the city gate. Each expresses a different reaction: two figures to the left bow their heads sadly, while another –- probably the town’s ruler– points accusingly at the saint with a baton; another recoils in horror. The ruler wears a turban, while his companion in yellow has an elaborate fan-shaped hat. Starnina has dressed the men in outfits he thought fitting for the eastern Mediterranenan setting, Antioch being in modern-day Turkey. A soldier brandishing a large pike guards the scene. His helmet and shield – as well as the executioner’s sword– may have been covered in silver leaf originally and thus glistened amid the bright colours.
The saint has been identified as Saint Margaret of Antioch. Her legend tells that she survived a variety of tortures as well as an encounter with the devil in the form of a dragon, who devoured her. She survived by making the sign of the cross – as she does here with her thumbs. Eventually she was beheaded but first was granted time to pray.
It is likely that the panel formed part of the predella of a polyptych in the Martin von Wagner Museum in Würzburg. The central panel shows the Virgin and Child with angels playing musical instruments at her feet. The flanking panels show two pairs of saints each. It is likely, given the subject and the dimensions of this panel, that it was located beneath the left-hand panel showing Saint Philip (though this is debated) and Saint Margaret of Antioch. The saints on the right-hand panel are Saint Peter and Saint Mary Magdalene. Various other small fragments from museums across the world have been connected with this altarpiece, including a fragment of identical dimensions now in the Art Institute of Chicago, showing the Dormition (burial) of the Virgin. It was almost certainly placed immediately to the right of the panel showing Margaret’s execution since the wood grain on both panels is continuous, showing that both were painted on the same piece of wood which was later cut up.
The presence of Saint Philip has led to the suggestion that the altarpiece may have been commissioned by a Florentine banker, Filippo di Piero Rinieri for church of Santa Maria in Campo in the parish of Santa Margherita, Florence, where Filippo lived. It probably adorned the altar of a side chapel dedicated to either Saint Margaret or Saint Mary Magdalene.
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