Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Part III -- Buried by Angels, Reburied by Monks

Entombment of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Greek, late 15th Century
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

As discussed in the introductory article about Saint Catherine of Alexandria, part of her story tells how, following her martyrdom, her body was taken by angels to Mount Sinai, where they buried her.  Whether this story was attached to her as interest in her grew or whether interest in her grew on account of the story is almost impossible to tell, given the limited resources that have come down to us from the fourth and later centuries. 1

Between the fourth and the ninth century there were no relics of Saint Catherine.  This is unusual in that the relics of early martyrs were frequently carefully collected and reverently buried in places that were widely known to the Christian communities of the places in which they had died.  It is also unusual in that Alexandria was a major city, and a major Christian center, before the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the mid-seventh century.  It is possible, of course, that the location was forgotten during the disturbances that occurred from the early fifth century through the seventh.   It is also even possible that the story could be true.  We simply cannot be certain.

Master of Jacques d'Armagnac, Burial of St. Catherine of Alexandria
from a Book of Hours
French, c.1455
Rennes, Bibliotheque municipale
MS Ms. 1509, fol. 68r

What is certain is that sometime before the year 1100 a grave was located on the slopes of a mountain neighboring the traditionally accepted Mount Sinai which was believed to be Catherine’s. 2 

Angels Lifting the Body of St. Catherine
French, Late 15th Century
Paris, Musée Magnin. Grand Palais

Leonardo Scaletti, Angels Mourning St. Catherine
Italian, c.1480
Florence, Private Collection

St. Catherine's Body Placed in the Tomb by Angels
from Leven van S. Katharina
Dutch (s-Hertogenbosch), 1480-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Neerlandais 129, fol. 90

Bernardino Luini, St. Catherine's Body Carried to the Tomb by the Angels
Italian, 1509-1510
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Jan Erasmus Quellinus, St. Catherine's Body Brought by Angels to Mount Sinai
Flemish, c.1633-1678
Toulouse, Musée des Augustins

The Greek Orthodox monks from the monastery of Our Lady, which had been built in the sixth century at the foot of Mount Sinai by the great Byzantine Emperor Justinian, removed the body from its grave and buried it in a small chapel on the hill where it had been found.  The hill was renamed Jebel Katrin in her honor. 
Finding of body of St. Catherine of Alexandria
from Mass and Office Book of the Confraternity of St. Catherine
French (Paris), c. 1400-1410
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS KB 76 E 18, fol. 95r

Later on, probably in the late twelfth century, the bones, which exuded a healing oil, were reinterred in the main monastery, which was renamed St. Catherine’s in her honor.  They are still there today.
Reburial of St. Catherine of Alexandria
from Mass and Office Book of the Confraternity of St. Catherine
French (Paris), c.1400-1410
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS KB 76 E 18, fol. 19r

Pilgrims began to come to the monastery, as they still do, and in the later twelfth century, possibly before the move into the main monastery, a couple of finger bones were acquired by a Norman Crusader and brought back to a monastery in Normandy.  Those in Normandy and those at Mount Sinai are the sole relics in existence.

Representations of the angelic burial do not seem to appear until the early fifteenth century and were never a very strong strain in her iconography.  However, they seem to have acquired a second life in the nineteenth century, when several works on this theme appeared. 
Heinrich Karl Anton Muecke, Angels Carrying the Body of St. Catherine of Alexandria to Sinai
German, 1836
Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie

Miguel Navarro y Canizares, The Body of St. Catherine Transported by Angels
Spanish, 1866
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

There is an even smaller group of pictures depicting pilgrimage to her tomb.  

Master de la Mazarine and Collaborators, Pilgrims at Mount Sinai
from Livre des merveilles of Sir John Mandeville
French (Paris), c.1410-1412
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 2810, fol. 154v

Attributed to  Giacomo Graffeo, Tomb of St. Catherine of Alexandria
from St. Catherine of Alexandria Cycle
Italian (Sicily), c.1500
Termini Imerese, Church of Santa Caterina d'Alessandria

For more on the story and iconography of Saint Catherine of Alexandria see:
1.  Part I -- Introduction
2.  Part II --  Martyrdom
3.  Part IV -- Saint Catherine in the Sacra Conversazione

© M. Duffy, 2016

  1. Walsh, Christine.  The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe, Burlington, VT, Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007, p. 39.
  2. For this and what follows see Walsh, Christine. Ibid, p. 40 through 44.

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