According to legend, St Margaret, who was born in Antioch and martyred under Diocletian, was swallowed by a dragon before being decapitated. Carracci portrays her as a richly attired Roman matron exhorting the spectator by pointing to the heavens: in one hand she holds the palm of martyrdom and a book, symbolising theological erudition. With measured naturalness, she rests her left arm on an ancient marble memorial which bears the engraved motto SURSUM CORDA, while she crushes the dragon’s head with her foot. Her majestic figure stands out boldly against the landscape which opens up in the background with a calm and serene aura of classicism, which is also alluded to by the classical ruins in the foreground.
The work is a very effective blend of Bolognese naturalism, clear influences of Venetian painting, and the grand manner of Rome which the artist was developing as he worked on the Camerino and the Galleria in the Palazzo Farnese (1595–1601). And it was indeed a gentiluomo in the service of the Farnese family, Gabriele Bombasi, who commissioned the painting for the altar of his funeral chapel, which was made in 1599 in the church of Santa Caterina dei Funari. Annibale also made the painting above, which depicted the Incoronation of the Virgin.
The earliest sources maintain that the St Margaret, a work made by Annibale in Bologna, is completely autograph (Mancini 1614–21; Baglione 1642). According to historiographers in the second half of the 17th century, on the other hand, the artist, who was then in Rome, reworked a copy, made by his pupil Lucio Massari under his direction, of the figure of St Catherine in the altar painting of the Madonna of St Luke (Paris, Louvre), which Annibale himself had painted in 1592 for the cathedral of Reggio Emilia, his patron’s birthplace (Pietro da Cortona and Ottonelli, 1652; Bellori 1672; Malvasia 1678).