|Saint Catherine of
Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr - Died 310 (?)
St. Catherine was widely popular from the middle ages through the 17th century, and her images are among the most common in the art of those years.
In Voragine's Golden Legend St. Catherine tells the Emperor Maxentius, "I have given myself as his bride to Christ." This suggestion was elaborated both in the art and in later versions of the Legend, which offer a tale of her miraculous visit to Heaven and marriage to Jesus, who gives her a ring. A 1340 painting shows an adult Jesus extending the ring to St. Catherine, but later works typically represent the bridegroom as the infant Christ seated on the knee of his mother (example). The scene is often filled out with other popular saints (example).
The rest of the story has Maxentius calling in a squad of philosophers to dispute with St. Catherine and lead her to apostasy, but the saint instead converts them. Maxentius orders her to be starved in prison for 12 days, but a dove brings her food from Heaven. Then the emperor's wife and 200 knights visit her, and she converts them too. In a fury, Maxentius orders that she be tortured on a device featuring four spiked wheels, but angels are sent to destroy it. At last, he has her beheaded.
The Golden Legend has a rather confused account of how the wheeled device operated, and this confusion carries into the images of St. Catherine's passion (examples: a romanesque fresco and paintings by Fernando Gallego and Lucas Cranach the Elder).
Portraits of the saint usually show her with the ruined wheel, the sword used to behead her, and the palm branch of martyrdom, as in Caravaggio's painting at left.
Because the Legend says St. Catherine was a queen, she also usually wears a crown. Indeed, because she was the only queen among the martyrs of Roman times many images rely on just the crown and the palm branch, sometimes with a book (example).
The book presumably refers to St. Catherine's erudition "in the arts liberal, wherein she drank plenteously of the well of wisdom, for she was chosen to be a teacher and informer of everlasting wisdom" (Caxton's translation of the Legend).
Feast day: November 25, no longer observed in the Roman Catholic Church
Mystic Marriage, with SS. John the Baptist and Anthony
Mystic Marriage, early 16th century
Mystic Marriage, with young St. John the Baptist
Catherine and the Philosophers, 1380
Catherine in Prison, 1580-85
With the Emperor's Wife, 1629
Decapitation with the Trinity
The Resurrection of Catherine, Pamplona
Vivarini polyptych, 1449
Among other saints:
A 1486 fresco in PiedmontIncidental portraits:
With John the Baptist in a 16th-century Crucifixion triptych
Golden Legend #172: html or pdf