July 28, 2016

The Golden Legend of a Miracle of Saint Martha

St. Martha taming the tarasque

Tradition holds that Martha’s brother Lazarus fled Jerusalem amid Christian persecution following the martyrdom of St. Stephen. His sisters, Mary and Martha, left Judea to assist him in proclaiming the Gospel in various lands. The three went to Cyprus, where Lazarus became the first Bishop of Kition (modern day Larnaca, a port city on the south coast of Cyprus). All three died in Cyprus.

Medieval popular piety presents a fuller picture of the saint. The story of Martha and the dragon comes from the Golden Legend of Blessed Jacobus de Voragine. According to this legend, Martha and her sister, Mary Magdalene, traveled to Marseilles, France, after the Ascension of Christ. In the town of Tarascon, Martha encountered a dragon referred to as the "Tarasque" in French (Tarascurus in Latin). The Golden Legend portrays it as a beast from Galicia; a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, possessing teeth sharp as a sword. Holding a cross, Martha anointed the dragon with holy water. Using her sash, she led it through the village. From the Golden Legend:
There was that time upon the river of Rhone, in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon, a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side, and could not be beaten with cast of stones ne with other armour, and was as strong as twelve lions or bears; which dragon lay hiding and lurking in the river, and perished them that passed by and drowned ships. ...
And when he is pursued he casts out of his belly behind, his ordure, the space of an acre of land on them that follow him, and it is bright as glass, and what it toucheth it burneth as fire. To whom Martha, at the prayer of the people, came into the wood, and found him eating a man. And she cast on him holy water, and showed to him the cross, which anon was overcome, and standing still as a sheep, she bound him with her own girdle, and then was slain with spears and glaives of the people. 
The dragon St. Martha tames could be the product of medieval legend, or, it could be the embodiment of the evils and moral depravity of the community. Whatever the case, Martha is portrayed as "eloquent and virtuous of speech, courteous and gracious to the sight of the people." Moreover, it is notable that she does not kill the dragon, (the townspeople do) but uses holy water to subdue it.

St. Martha's relics rest in the Collegiate Church in Tarascon They were found in the church during a reconstruction in the twelfth century. Almighty ever-living God, whose Son was pleased to be welcomed in Saint Martha's house as a guest, grant, we pray, that through her intercession, serving Christ faithfully in our brothers and sisters, we may merit to be received by you in the halls of heaven.

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