Evelyn de Morgan was an extraordinary draughtswoman portraying the human form with outstanding accuracy. She was an English painter whose work were influenced by the style of the Pre-Raphaelite art. She preferred to treat biblical, mythological or literary themes, highlighting the role of women; and most of her work had a metaphorical value.
In the painting we can observe that the upper torso appears to twist to the right, the knees are slightly bent and pointing to the left in a classical “contrapposto” in a dynamic pose. De Morgan’s portrayal of fabrics is phenomenal. Here, the martyr is dressed in a red drapery and has a classical feel, like many of her other narratives the female is placed centrally within the canvas, as the master of her destiny.
According to an article of Yates (1996) she gleaned her inspiration from Sir John Everett Millais’s sketch that was published in Once a Week in 1862, this London periodical was popular from 1850 to 1880. It carried illustrations and poems from notable artists such as Holman Hunt, John Tenniel, Rossetti and Tennyson among others. Once a Week published important works by female writers, such as Harriet Martineau, Isabella Blagden and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, since they did not have, apparently, the draconian views of other publications of the time.
In 2016, Deveraux said that the way de Morgan changes the drapery to flesh achieves to sanctify the entire figure, as she portrayed her social and political views in this painting. He also compares the oil paintings by Millais (The Martyr of the Solway, 1871) and de Morgan, he describes the gaze of Evelyn de Morgan’s Martyr as a gaze of “serene indifference” while he remarks that Millais’s version is a sad sensual figure.
Of course, the painting did not pleased everyone, and in 1882, The Spectator published a review saying that the work lacked meaning and emotion.
Who was the martyr?
Since her allegoric paintings usually contain a social or political meaning, it is important to know who the martyr of the painting was. And in Once a Week we can find a clue, there is an inscription below Millais’s drawing in which read:
See Lord Macaulay’s History of England vol 1 page 501. Margaret Wilson’s epitaph, from Wodrow, in the Churchyard of Wigton, is as follows:Head of his Church, and no more crime
But her not owning Prelacy,
And not abjuring Presbytery;
Within the sea, tied to a stake,
She suffered for Christ Jesu’s sake.”
Wodrow wrote about a young lady called Margaret Wilson, she was 18 years old and her sister Agnes, 13 years old, whose parents attended Episcopal services, relinquishing their faith, while their brothers remained devout Presbyterians and encouraged the girls to follow them and live wild in the hills. During a visit in April 1685, they were betrayed by a neighbour to the authorities. By that time, the Presbyterian faith was illegal, they were captured, sent for trial, and found guilty, their sentence was for them to be drowned. Their father went to Edinburgh to plead for all three to be pardoned. It is unknown why the warrant to pardon them was not signed, but it is known that Agnes’s sentence was changed to £100 fine; and that in May 1685 Margaret was taken to Wigtown Bay, tied to a post in the sands. As the water engulfed her, witnesses claim that she prayed and read aloud Psalms 25 from verse 7:
Do not remember the sins of my youth
and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me,
for you, Lord, are good.
When the flood water had covered her head, the soldiers lifted up her chin and asked her again to swear allegiance to the King, she again refused, according to eyewitness she remained resolute and fearless calling out:
“May God save him, if it be God’s will!” Her friends crowded round the presiding officer. “She has said it; indeed, sir, she has said it.” “Will she take the abjuration?” he demanded. “Never!” she exclaimed. “I am Christ’s: let me go!” Having heard this, the soldiers pushed her head below the water until she was dead. Wodrow R. (1721)
Wodrow was affected by this story, he condemned this, and others acts of murder during the killing time. Although the case of Margaret Wilson is not related to witch hunting, is important to note that at that until 1736 the acts against witchcraft were not repealed. Margaret, as other Presbyterians, felt that no one had the right to rule the church, they disapproved the pyramidical system of Bishops and Cardinals.
We can imagine that this story, which troubled Wodrow, affected Evelyn de Morgan too, since she was a humanist (and perhaps we can dare to say a feminist). She depicted how women have been persecuted throughout history, bringing this narrative to the attention of the public.