Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Part II -- Martyr

Byzantine Illuminator, Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
from the Menologium Basilianum
Constantinople, c.1000
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
MS Vat.gr.1613, fol.207

As we have seen in the Introduction to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the earliest image we have of Saint Catherine dates to around 1000 and comes from a book of prayers composed for the use of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, the Menologium Basilianum, preserved in the Vatican Library.  

Indeed, it is scenes of her martyrdom that are dominant in the first few centuries of her iconographic tradition.  
And, as one scholar puts it “A detailed analysis of extant K-iconography shows that scenic presentations of episodes in the legend emerge at least simultaneously with, and usually earlier than, the corresponding verbal episodes, suggesting strongly that transformations have occurred in oral tradition before they were fixed in literary texts.”1

Mahiet and Collaborators, Saint Catherine Before Maximian
from Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais
French (Paris), c.1335
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 5080, fol. 282v
The scenes of her martyrdom continue to be popular over the longest period as well, although they are overwhelmed from about the mid-fourteenth century by other aspects of her iconography, which we will look at later.  We will now review some of these scenes, which I am presenting in logical, instead of chronological, order.

The story of Catherine’s martyrdom is unusually complex.  It begins with the recently converted Catherine being importuned by the Emperor Miamian, either to marry him or to marry his son, Maxentius (the man who became Constantine’s rival for the Imperial throne).  

Alabaster panel, Saint Catherine Before Maximian
English, 15th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

His pleas fall on deaf ears because Catherine, as part of her conversion experience, has chosen Christ as her bridegroom (whether in a spiritual or material sense does not matter at this point).  Further, she refuses his request that she demonstrate her loyalty by offering the customary sacrifice to the Roman gods. 

Embroidered Cope After Lucas van Leyden, Saint Catherine Disputing with the Philosophers
Flemish, c.1525
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Angry at her double rebuff, Miamian determines to re-convert her and sets her into a debate with fifty of his best pagan philosophers, fully expecting that a mere girl will be unable to overcome their arguments.  Catherine, however, has received an excellent classical education and good instruction in Christianity from the hermit, Adrian, as part of her conversion.  So, she is able to counter all the efforts of the philosophers to change her mind. 

Antiveduto Gramatica, Disputation of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, 1610-1620
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Getting angrier at her the Emperor sends her to prison, hoping this will break her resolve.  Instead, Catherine continues the debate with the philosophers, converting many of them, and even converting the Emperor’s wife and the captain of his guard.  Enraged, Maximian orders all of them to be killed, even including his wife.

Master of Jacques d'Armagnac, Angels Strengthening Saint Catherine in Prison
from Book of Hours
French, c.1455
Rennes, Bibliotheque municipale
MS Ms 1509, 44v

Attributed to Giacomo Graffeo, Saint Catherine converting  the Empress and Porphyrius
from Saint Catherine of Alexandria Cycle
Italian (Sicily), c.1500
Termini Imerese, Church of Santa Caterina d'Alessandria

Maximian then subjects Catherine to the torture that provides her with her most unusual, as well as most recognized, symbolic attribute, the wheel.  This is a device in which the rims of several wheels are studded with sharpened blades, with the intent to roll over her and inflict multiple terrible wounds, which would cause her death from blood loss.  

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Catherine in Front of the Wheel
from Vies de Saints
French (Paris), 1300-1325
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 183, fol. 100v

But Catherine prays to God to be spared and she is.  Before they can be used the wheels are broken into pieces, sometimes it is said that they are broken with rocks hurled from heaven by angels, sometimes they are burned by fires ignited by lightening, sometimes by both, or sometimes they simply fly apart.  In any case, the executioners and many of the spectators are killed as the dangerously sharp elements of the wheels fly apart. It is this episode from her martyrdom that most captured the imagination of artists. There are many more of images of this event than of all the other phases of her martyrdom.

Giovanni di Benedetto and Collaborators, Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
from Missale ad usum fratrum minorum
Italy (Milan), c.1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 757, fol. 362v

Jean Fouquet, Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
from Hours of Etienne Chevalier
French (Tours), c.1450
Chantilly, Musée Condé
MS Ms 71, fol..38r 

Master of Morgan 366, Martyrdom of Saint Catherine
from Book of Hours
French (Tours), 1465-1475
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 366, fol. 149v

Atelier of Andrea della Robbia, Martyrdom of SaintCatherine
Italian, ea.16th Century
Écouen. Musée national de la Renaissance

Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
from a Book of Hours
French (Berry), 1505-1515
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 250, fol. 144v

Gaudenzio Ferrari, Martyrdom of Saint Catherine
Italian, 1543
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Anonymous, Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Spanish, Mid-17th Century
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Giovanni Sorbi. Martyrdom of Saint Catherine
Italian, 1760
Rome, Church of Santa Caterina dei Funari, Cappella Cesi
Catherine is returned to prison and, in spite of  torture remains steadfast.  Even more angry now, Maximian orders her to be tortured and condemned.  

Claude Vignon_Saint Catherine Refusing to Sacrifice to the Idols
French, c.1650
Paris, Musée du Louvre

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

Peter Paul Rubens, Saint Catherine Is Condemned
Flemish c.1615
Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Johann Wilhelm Pottgiesser. Saint Catherine Condemned
German, 1671
Cologne, Holy Apostles Church

'and finally beheaded.  

Saint Catherine's Dispute with the Philosophers and Martyrdom
South Italian ,1251-1260
Casarano, Church of Santa Maria della Croce

Master of Jean Rolin/Master of the Dunois Hours, Decapitation of Saint Catherine
from a Book of Hours
French (Paris), 1455
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 74 G 37a, fol. 14r

Jacques de Besancon. Martyrdom of Saint Catherine
from the Legenda aurea of Jacob de Voragine
French (Paris), c.1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 245, fol. 189
This image includes the martyrdom of the philosophers.

From her severed neck and head flows milk instead of blood.  

Attributed to Giacomo Graffeo, Milk Flows from Catherine's Severed Head
from the Saint Catherine Cycle
Italian (Sicily), c.1500
Termini Imerese, Church of Santa Caterina d'Alessandria

Sebastian de Llanos y Valdes, Head of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Spanish, 1652
Castres, Musée Goya

Her body is then retrieved by angels and carried to Mount Sinai for burial. 2

For more on Saint Catherine of Alexandria see:

1. Part I -- Introduction
2. Part III -- Burial by Angels
3. Part IV -- Saint Catherine in the Sacra Conversazione

© M.  Duffy, 2016
  1.       Beatie, Bruce A.  “Saint Katharine of Alexandria: Traditional Themes and the Development of a Medieval German Hagiographic Narrative”, Speculum, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Oct., 1977), p. 797.
  2.       For more on the sources of these comments, please see the extensive footnotes in the Introduction at imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2016/11/saint-catherine-of-alexandria.html.  

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