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Saint Vincent, martyr

You have just a few more weeks to see some remarkable wood engravings and woodcuts by Escher up close in The Palace. On 12 March they will be returned to the archive to be replaced by new graphic treasures. Earlier we discussed Grasshopper, Tournai Cathedral and Scarabs. Today we will focus on St. Vincent, martyr.

The name of this saint derives from the Latin ‘vincere’: to conquer or to overcome. According to the legend, Saint Vincent was captured with his bishop Valerius of Saragossa during the Christian persecutions in the fourth century under Emperor Diocletianus. The local governor banished the bishop, but Saint Vincent was tortured horribly in an attempt to make him recant his faith. Despite these torments Vincent did not capitulate and he defended his faith vigorously. In the end he was thrown in a dungeon filled with shards of glass to await his death. But Vincent was saved by angels who transformed the glass into flowers. When the governor understood how remarkable Vincent’s survival was in the face of all this cruelty, he ordered him to be set free and cared for, afraid of how the people might otherwise react. However, Vincent had barely been given a comfortable bed when his body succumbed. The furious governor ordered the body to be dumped outside the city to be eaten by birds of prey and wild animals. But a raven stood guard next to the body and chased away all predators. Christians buried him at what is now known as Cape St. Vincent in the Portuguese Algarve. A shrine was erected over his grave, which continued to be guarded by flocks of ravens.

In the woodcut the gigantic raven stands out, looming protectively over the radiant saint. On a cliff some howling wolves look down in frustration. Escher complements the composition with a town that can be seen in the depth. This town is fictional but the inspiration is clear. He had been to Atrani for the first time in the spring of 1923 and the town on the Amalfi coast would have a lasting influence on his work. The reference in this print is a clear one, although the literal similarities are small.

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