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Martyrdom: Why martyrs still matter, by Catherine Pepinster

18 December 2020

Alexander Faludy reads a study of martyrdom in history and today

MARGARET CLITHEROW was executed at York on Good Friday 1586. Clitherow naked (and pregnant) had 400kg of stones piled on her until her rib cage cracked. The process took 15 minutes to complete. Her crime: hiding priests in defiance of Elizabethan recusancy laws. Anglican establishment has not always been a matter of woolly toleration.

This book is dedicated to Clitherow, but its approach is anything but sectarian. Catherine Pepinster shows how the “ecumenism of blood” has brought Christians closer together in recent decades: sharing in liturgical celebration of each other’s faithful witnesses. Speaking of Oscar Romero, the author praises “the recognition Anglicans gave the Salvadoran archbishop as a martyr long before the Catholic Church had officially done so”.

Martyrdom is a dynamic concept. Traditionally, the formal criteria for recognising a martyrdom in the Roman Catholic Church rested on the concept of odium fidei — death occasioned specifically by “hatred of the faith”. Lately, martyrdom’s definition has been stretched by liberals and conservatives alike.

In 1982, John Paul II declared his fellow Pole Fr Maximillian Kolbe a “Martyr of Charity”: recognition that his death in Auschwitz was occasioned by his sacrificial humanitarian commitment, not hatred of his faith per se. John Paul’s approach overlaps, paradoxically, with the contention of the liberation theologian John Sobrino that death occasioned by odium iustitiae (hatred of justice) is also martyrdom.

Pepinster argues that these developments may not be a case of a “change” so much as recovery of older understandings. According to Aquinas, “Human good can become divine good if it is referred to God; therefore, any human good can be a cause of martyrdom.”

The book is well structured. Its content is arranged in two complementary halves: “Chronology” and “Themes”, the latter exploring how categories such as gender, race, and nationalism affect later perceptions of martyrdom.

The research underpinning this book is wide-ranging but sometimes uneven — especially on religion in Eastern Europe. Poland was not (as stated) “intensely Catholic” from 966 onwards. As late as 1931, 35 per cent of Poles belonged to other religious traditions. More broadly, it is strange to jump (in the chronological section) straight from the patristic era to the Reformation. Doing so means overlooking the development of distinctive “missionary martyrdom” in the medieval period though devotion to figures such as Boniface, Gellert, and Adalbert.

Overall, however, the book is excellent. The author’s discussion of the visual culture of martyrdom is notably impressive, especially as concerns the early modern period. Pepinster adroitly explains how violent 16th-century sectarian strife in Europe revolutionised the depiction of early Christian and medieval martyrs.

Fifteenth-century depictions of historic martyrdom were typically stylised and arranged so as to reveal the martyr’s heroic qualities and patient, stoical acceptance. Against the background of the Counter-Reformation, martyrdom became more about victims than about heroes.

Baroque martyr depictions provoke sympathy more than they excite admiration. Pathos overwhelms the viewer on beholding the operation of “torture, dismemberments, swords, racks and desecration” on the martyr’s person. Pepinster cites Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St Matthew (1600) for the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi (the “French church”) in Rome as the foremost exemplar of this trend.

Since the killings of French Roman Catholics for their faith in Nice on 29 October, Caravaggio’s St Matthew is, perhaps, as much an image for 2020 as for 1600.


The Revd Alexander Faludy is a priest pursuing studies in law.


Martyrdom: Why martyrs still matter
Catherine Pepinster
SPCK £25
Church Times Bookshop special offer price £19.99

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