Saint Eulalia by John William Waterhouse (Interpretation and Analysis)
Upon first glance, it may be hard to believe that John William Waterhouse’s Saint Eulalia depicts a Christian martyr.
It is an extremely strange painting. The foreshortened, half-naked body of a young woman dominates the foreground while the middle ground-usually used to portray the main action of the piece-is empty. A group of onlookers huddles in the background while snow falls gently on the strange scene.
The subject of this unconventional painting is the death of Eulalia of Mérida, a fourth-century Christian martyr from Spain. According to my research, Eulalia was persecuted because of her belief in Christianity and because she insulted the Roman gods. Eulalia, who was twelve to fourteen-years-old at the time, was sentenced to death by the local Roman governor. She was tortured and suffered a gruesome and excruciating martyrdom. Despite her pain, she taunted her torturers, and, when she died, a dove flew out of her mouth, a miracle that symbolized the innocence of her soul. A second miracle occurred when snow began to fall (a pretty unusual occurrence in southern Spain) and covered her naked body.
This dramatic story is depicted in Waterhouse’s painting. The artist captures the moments directly after the saint’s death as the snow begins to fall and a crowd of onlookers gathers to mourn Eulalia’s death. A dove hovers near the body, symbolizing her departing soul. To the right, a Roman guard stands next to a cross, the means of Eulalia’s death.
This addition to the scene is apocryphal, as crucifixion is not part of her story. However, the presence of the cross in the painting makes it immediately clear to viewers that they are looking at a painting of a Christian martyr. A placard hanging from the cross identifies the saint, another clue for any viewer who is unfamiliar with Eulalia’s story.
Yet, as I mentioned earlier, there are a few weird things going on in this painting. The unusual composition of the painting draws the viewer’s eye to the empty space in the center of the painting. The body in the foreground is also pretty strange. Foreshortening is an unusual artistic technique that is rather rare in Western art; the extreme foreshortening that Waterhouse uses to depict Eulalia is even more rare and interesting. In my opinion, foreshortening is best used in moderation. However, Waterhouse’s use of the technique in Saint Eulalia makes the painting very striking and dramatic, which works for the somber and gruesome tale of a young girl’s murder.
Choosing to paint the saint half-naked was also a risky choice that could have drawn censure from Victorian audiences. However, Waterhouse’s approach to the painting makes her nudity more affecting than sensational, and Saint Eulalia was well received by critics. In fact, the piece was even praised for its originality. Many contemporary viewers felt that Waterhouse’s Eulalia had a quiet dignity and serenity, and the sight of her body lying bare in the snow certainly inspired more pity than anything else.
Despite Waterhouse’s unconventional style, Saint Eulalia is an extremely effective painting. In one of the few Christian pieces he ever produced, Waterhouse sought to convey the strength and power of faith, and he succeeded. Even in death, his Eulalia is a powerful and touching image.