John William Waterhouse

Study for ‘Saint Eulalia’


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John William Waterhouse 1849–1917
Ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 127 × 76 mm
Purchased 1977

Catalogue entry


Pen and ink with grey and brown wash heightened with white on paper, 4 15/16 × 3 (12.6 × 7.7), edges uneven.

Purchased from Abbott & Holder (Grant-in-Aid) 1977

A study for the painting (74 × 46 1/2in) exhibited at the RA in 1885 (503), purchased by Sir (then Mr) Henry Tate, included in his founding gift to the Tate Gallery in 1894 and now N01542 in the collection.

St. Eulalia, a girl of twelve and a native of Merida in Spain, was martyred there in or about the year 304 for defying the local magistrate's attempt to enforce Diocletian's edict that all subjects of Rome must make sacrifices to the Roman gods. The form her martyrdom reputedly took was particularly gruesome: first two executioners began to tear her body with iron hooks, then lighted torches were applied to her breasts and sides until finally, as the fire caught her hair, she was stifled to death.

Waterhouse exhibited his painting with the following note: ‘Prudentius says that the body of St. Eulalia was shrouded “by a miraculous fall of snow when lying in the forum after her martyrdom”’. In both the sketch and the painting Waterhouse treated the subject with a certain amount of artistic licence: ‘the forum’ (presumably in Spain) now appears to be the Forum in Rome, the 12-year old girl is depicted (though in no way salaciously) as a fully-developed young woman, and though there is snow in the air and on the ground, it cannot be said to ‘shroud’ her half-naked and apparently quite unmutilated body.

The study, perhaps Waterhouse's first conception of the subject, shows the foreshortened body of the saint (in a pose faithfully followed in the painting) lying supine at the foot of the massive plinth of one of a pair of equestrian statues which presumably symbolize imperial might. Behind it stands a Roman soldier, his back towards us, gesturing towards a distant and dimly-seen group of spectators as if demonstrating the penalties of disobedience. Snow falls, in thick flakes of Chinese white; and there are no intermediaries between the body of the Christian martyr and the symbols of temporal power. In the finished painting, Waterhouse borrowed another detail from the legend according to Prudentius, who said that as the girl expired, a white dove seemed to come out of her mouth and wing its way heavenwards. Waterhouse introduced sixteen doves into his painting, to good effect, for they enhance the air of a miracle; and he replaced the statues of the sketch by a soaring wooden cross on the right of his composition, implying that the martyrdom was by crucifixion (the painting, though exhibited merely as ‘St. Eulalia’, was indeed reproduced in both the Art Journal and the Magazine of Art for 1893 as ‘St. Eulalia's Crucifixion’). The position of the soldier has changed, and his attitude has somehow softened: though he still stands sentinel, he allows a group of evidently compassionate spectators to come within a short distance of the martyred figure, and the kneeling figure of a young girl among them seems to suggest that the martyrdom was not in vain.

Anthony Hobson, Department of the History of Art, Lanchester Polytechnic, who is working on Waterhouse, notes that an oil sketch for ‘St. Eulalia’ was formerly at Rugby School, part of a collection dispersed in 1950 (present whereabouts unknown).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979

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