Martinian of Palestine: Scene, encountering shipwrecked woman, from Vitae patrum by Unknown Italian artist

Unknown Italian artist

Martinian of Palestine: Scene, encountering shipwrecked woman, from Vitae patrum, c.1350–75, Illumination on vellum, 356 x 252 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, MS M.626, fol. 100r, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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‘Dashed All To Pieces!’

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This fourteenth-century Latin illuminated manuscript, written in the Italian textura script, was made in Naples, Italy. It is a copy of The Lives of Seventy-two Fathers of the Church and Anchorites, an early medieval collection of saints’ lives. The ink and coloured wash drawing of the manuscript is in the style of the Neapolitan master Roberto d'Oderisio, perhaps by his hand.

The scene is from the life of St Martinian of Palestine. Legend recounts Martinian’s withdrawal to the wilderness, not far from the city of Caesarea, at the age of eighteen. He lived there for twenty-five years as a hermit and ascetic. Later, seeking yet greater solitude and relief from carnal temptations, he became a recluse on an uninhabited island.

Then one day a powerful storm destroys a nearby ship; a woman, clinging to a piece of the wreckage, floats to the island—yet another carnal temptation!

In the scene, framed by two ornamental trees, Martinian encounters the woman. Nimbed, and wearing a cap and monk’s habit, he kneels on the shore at the right of the composition. At left, the ship lists in the sea, its sails torn, its mast broken, its crow’s nest fallen toppling over the stern, as the winged head of a personified wind blows a flailing rope ladder. Beneath the shattered hull of the disabled vessel float the ghostly corpses of several drowned sailors, all stripped naked by the violent waves. At centre, beneath another personified wind, the woman, with both hands raised, is seated on a plank. Her feet dangle in the water.

Martinian’s damsel in distress shows us how some aboard the ill-fated Alexandrian freighter in Acts—perhaps even Paul himself—might have paddleboarded to safety by obeying the centurion's command: ‘jump overboard ... and make for the land ... on planks and ... pieces of the ship’ (Acts 27:43–44).



Butler, Alban. 1866. ‘St Martinianus, Hermit at Athens’, in The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, vol. 2: February, 12 vols (Dublin: James Duffy)

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