|Saint Catherine of
Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr - Died 310 (?)
The oldest known version of
St. Catherine's passion was composed in the 10th century in Greek by Symeon
Metaphrastes. Latin and western vernacular versions of the
story, regardless of their length, retain all the episodes
in Symeon's work in the order he presented them. Until the
14th century, longer works mostly extend the dialogues in
the original and add dramatic touches or rationalizing
Later works add episodes to the beginning that culminate
in the "Mystical Marriage" discussed below.
Symeon's passion and its western derivatives follow this
order of narrative:
When Maxentius offers Catherine
co-rulership she replies "I
have become a bride of Christ" in Symeon and
"Christ has adopted me as his bride" in the Passio."3
Later versions take this hint and work it up into
an extended prelude in which the still-pagan Catherine is taken in a
vision to Christ, who gives her a ring and takes
her as his bride.
Alexandria,Catherine, an erudite virgin of royal
lineage, objects to the Emperor Maxentius' calling
for a grand festival in honor of the gods. A
Tintoretto of this scene is available only from a
commercial dealer. One
portrait in the Getty alludes to Catherine's
erudition by showing her reading a book and another
uses a book as an attribute. Her royal lineage leads
the artists almost invariably to give her a crown,
as at left.
summons fifty pagan philosophers to debate
But she prays for God's assistance, and the
philosophers lose the debate, convert to
Christianity, and are martyred in what Catherine
assures them is a Baptism by Fire. At
Notre-Dame de Morillon in France the earliest
known image of St. Catherine's story shows the
martyrdom of the philosophers inside a structure
shaped like a baptismal font.
promises that Catherine can be his co-ruler if she
recants, but she refuses, saying she is a bride of
has her tortured and imprisoned for twelve days
(forty in Capgrave). In the western versions
angels tend her wounds with salve (image).
Wishing to be a Christian like Catherine, the
Emperor's wife visits her in prison, accompanied
by the military officer Porphyry (image).
During the confinement, Catherine is fed daily by
a dove from Heaven (image);
Christ also visits in person to encourage her.
the twelve days Maxentius offers Catherine her
life if she recants, death if she persists in
error. She refuses, so he has an engine with
spiked wheels built to
frighten her into submission. She prays and an
angel destroys the engine. The flying fragments
kill many pagan bystanders (image).
The Golden Legend has a very confusing account of
the engine's construction and may be the cause of
some very odd visualizations in the art (example).
wife objects to his behavior, so he has her
tortured and put to death.
and his 200 men confess the faith and are also
refusing Maxentius' offer, Catherine is condemned
to death. Women follow weeping behind her to the
place of execution, but she says they should
rejoice for her and weep for themselves.2
prays for those who will remember her when they
pray, and then she is beheaded (image).
Three miracles are noted: Milk flows from her trunk
when she is beheaded, angels carry her body to Mt.
and a healing oil flows from her sarcophagus.
Marriage" was already in place in the 13th-century
English Legend of St. Katherine, though it was
still unknown to Voragine in 1260 when he compiled the
Golden Legend. After the 13th century it became a
common subject for painting.
The question facing artists of the time was how to
handle the implications of sexual intimacy in such a
subject. One early
example from the 14th century deals with the problem by
putting Jesus and Catherine at arms' length on the left
and right of the scene. Subsequent images follow the
Montmorillon example of picturing Christ as a baby on his
mother's lap (example).
A wedding is
a social event, so in Mystical Marriage
images other popular saints are also in
especially St. John the Baptist and St. Anthony Abbot (example).
Portraits of the saint usually show her with a spiked wheel from the ruined engine, the
sword used to behead her, and the palm branch of
popularity of St. Catherine portraits may be due to
her final prayer before the execution. In Symeon, she
merely asks that Christ will grant people "petitions
that are profitable to them" when they call on his
name through her. But the Passio she prays
that he will grant the requests of those in need who
invoke her against pestilence, famine,
illness, and calamities – and for healthy air and a
fruitful harvest. Later
versions of the prayer keep repeating this list
through the rest of the Middle Ages, and by the
14th century Catherine has become
a Nothelfer, one of the
fourteen saints to whom people looked for
assistance when in need.
Feast day: November 25, no longer observed
in the Roman Catholic Church
At left, from
Anthony Vivarini's 1449 Polyptych
of the Virgin and Child
Other images of the passion:
wheeled engine, 15th-century
Other images of the Mystical Marriage:
with the Trinity
painting of the scene
young St. John the Baptist
the Doge, 1581
Among other saints:
relief, 15th century
A 1486 fresco
Hagiography: See the note below.
of the Madonna and Child with Saints, 1520
Veronese Sacra Conversazione, 1540-43
With John the Baptist in
16th-century Crucifixion triptych
In an Adoration
of the Shepherds, 1599
the Virgin Lactans
from Assisi, with the Madonna and Child