Saint MargaretCa. 1565. Oil on canvas, 209 x 183 cm.
Philip II owned two pictures of this saint painted by Titian. The first can be identified with the portrait of Saint Margaret mentioned by the painter in a letter sent to the then Prince Philip on II October 1552. This painting came to the Escorial in 1574 and remains there. The version in the Museo del Prado is later and of better quality. It probably belonged to Mary of Hungary. While it is not mentioned in her inventories, an engraving by Luca Bertelli of Saint Margaret bears the inscription, Titiani Vecelei aequitis Cae Reginae Mariae Imp. Caroli V. Sororis Opus. As with other paintings belonging to Mary, it passed after her death to Philip II, although the first subsequent reference is provided by Francisco Pacheco in his Arte de la pintura (1649), who mentions it as being in the church of San Jeronimo in Madrid, a royal institution. Pacheco criticised Titian for having shown the saint with the leg almost completely nude to above the knee, a statement which he copied from Lodovico Dolce, according to Wethey.
The story of Saint Margaret, a third-century Antioch virgin martyred by Diocletian, was recounted in Jacopo de Voragine´s Golden Legend. According to Voragine, while the saint was in prison, she asked God to be able to see her enemy, at which point a dragon appeared with the intention of devouring her, but disappeared when she made the sign of the cross. Titian does not represent this passage, but rather another which even Voragine stated to be a legend, in which the dragon swallows the saint, who then makes the sign of the cross at which point the dragon bursts and she emerges unharmed. Despite the Council of Trent´s ban on the representation of such unhistorical events, Titian placed pictorial tradition over ecclesiastical admonitions. His debt here to Raphael´s Saint Margaret is evident, a painting brought to Venice in the early sixteenth century by Cardinal Grimani. In both works a rock acts as the backdrop to the action while the saint emerges from the dragon in graceful contrapposto. The manner in which the saint reveals her forward leg in a similar way to Raphael´s figure, recalls Giorgione´s Judith (Saint Petersburg, Hermitage). Elements such as the burning city, the cross held by the saint and the skull in the lower right corner are not normally found in the iconography of Saint Margaret, and were attributed by Panofsky to a confusion with the story of Saint Martha and Saint George.
Titian painted in very diluted oil on a prepared ground of calcium carbonate which would explain the thinness of the paint layer, allowing us to see the weave of the canvas. There is a formal dissociation evident between the figures and the landscape found in his works of the 1550s. Saint Margaret is more highly finished, her head and arms outlined with a black line comparable to the woman seen from behind in The Glory, who also wears the same green colour. In the landscape, however, the forms loose their precision, creating an effective illusionistic interplay with the view of Venice burning in the background and the moon glimmering on the lagoon with a small boat on its waters.
Saint Margaret was enormously successful, to judge from surviving and documented copies. The collection Heinz Kisters (Kreuzlingen) has one such which some scholars have accepted as autograph, formerly in the collection of Charles I of England where it is recorded in 1639. Given its origins and inferior quality, it is likely to be by Michael Cross, whom Vicente Carducho states to have copied works by Titian in the Spanish royal collection for the then Prince Charles. Saint Margaret was listed in inventories of 1666 and 1734 in the Madrid Alcazar. In 1746 it was in the Buen Retiro, then the Palacio Real Nuevo. It entered the Museo del Prado in 1821 (Text drawn from Falomir, M.: Tiziano, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2003, pp. 398-399).