Monday, November 21, 2016

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Part I -- An Introduction

Vicente Carducho, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Spanish, End of 16th-First Third of 17th Century
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
This image has nearly all of Catherine's attributes.  She wears a crown,
carries a martyr's palm and a sword, At her left side is the broken wheel
and at her feet, the head of Emperor Maximian. Missing is the book.

Anyone who has had any exposure to European art of the middle ages through the Baroque period has probably encountered pictures or statues of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.  She was one of the most popular saints during those periods.  Images of her life, both those that are likely to have been real and those that are likely to have been invented, abound in every country of Christian Western Europe as well as from the Byzantine Empire.  There is so much material to work with that I find I must spread these blog reports over several days in order to do a half-way decent job of explaining her iconography, which is fascinating.

The “facts” of Catherine’s life have been disputed.  Some scholars claim that she never existed at all and that her entire story is an invention.  Other scholars claim that the life and death of a real woman lies at the base of the story.  Still others suggest that her “life” is actually a pastiche of several remembered lives.  

My personal belief is that there is probably a kernel of truth at the base of her story and that it is indeed the memory of one extraordinary woman martyr that forms that kernel.  As one scholar suggests:

“There seems every likelihood, …, that a real woman connected with Alexandria, whose name may have been Katharine, made some gesture during the period of the martyrdoms which caught the folk imagination and lived orally among Greek-speaking Christian congregations in the Near East and Southern Italy, her story taking on more and more the "einfache Form" of Legende toward the eighth century.”1

Master of the Beatus of San Andres de Arroyo, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Detached page from the Legenda aurea of Jacob de Voragine
Spanish, 1265-1300
Paris, Musée de Cluny, Musée national du Moyen Age
MS Cl.

Traditionally, Catherine (or Katherine) is believed to have been killed during the persecution of Diocletian in 305.  According to the tradition as it finally developed, she was a princess, daughter of a “king” at Alexandria named, Custas or Custos and his wife, Sabinelle.  She had been born a pagan, had been well educated by her father and mother and was, in addition, very beautiful.  She had been converted and baptized as a teenager by a hermit named Adrian.  Shortly after her baptism she had a vision in which the Blessed Virgin offered her a choice of male saints as spouses.  On Catherine’s rejection of them as not worthy of her hand, Christ Himself appeared and placed a ring on her finger, wedding her as his virgin bride.  

Bust of Saint Catherine
East Tyrol, 1265-1270
Matrei, Church of St. Nicholas

Shortly thereafter she was lustfully sought after by the Emperor Maximian (co-emperor with Diocletian and father of Constantine’s eventual rival, Maxentius, with whom he is sometimes confused).  In some versions of the story he seeks her for himself.  In other versions he seeks her for his son, Maxentius.  Having decided on a life of Christian virtue with her virginity dedicated to Christ as her husband, Catherine resisted.

Maximian then brought her before fifty pagan philosophers whose task was to persuade her to abandon Christianity and offer sacrifice to the Roman gods.  The brilliantly well-educated and inspired Catherine stood her ground and was unpersuaded, throwing the philosophers into a quandary.

Ivory Diptych with Scenes From the Life of Saint Catherine
French, Third Quarter of the  14th Century
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Then Maximian threw her into prison.  But, while there, she continued her discussions with the pagan philosophers, eventually converting all of them, plus the Emperor’s wife and Porphirius, the captain of the guard.  Maximian was so angry that he ordered all her converts to be killed, including his wife. 

One of Maximian’s executioners then suggested a peculiarly dreadful torment for killing Catherine.  This was a contraption made of wheels into which sharpened knives or spikes had been driven.  The idea was to roll this over Catherine multiple times, inflicting many wounds. 
Metal Pilgrim Badge, Saint Catherine's Wheel
French, c. 1400-1450
London, British Museum

The device was constructed and Catherine was brought out to suffer.  But angels prevented the ordeal by sending a storm that showered rocks and lightening on the wheels, breaking them into pieces and killing many of the executioners and bystanders in the process. 

Master of Morgan 366, Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, Saint Catherine Saved by Angels
From a Book of Hours
French (Tours), c. 1465-1475
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 366, fol. 149v

Eventually, as with others among the early martyrs, Catherine was killed by decapitation.   Instead of blood milk poured out of her severed neck. 

Romanesque Wall Painting, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
German, c.1300

A further wrinkle in the story of Saint Catherine is that her last words were a statement that God would come to the assistance of anyone who asked for her prayers and that she wished for her body to be hidden away so as not to attract attention.  According to the legend, God answered her last wish by sending angels to collect her body and bring it to Mount Sinai for burial.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria
French, Early 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Alexandria, with its famous library, which was still reasonably intact at the beginning of the fourth century, and its long tradition of scholarship would indeed have been a place in which a woman could attain a high degree of education.  Egyptian society, remembering that women had once held significant power in the past, was less restrictive than would have been the norm in European parts of the Empire.  About a hundred years later, the pagan scholar Hypatia, a woman who embodied the last strands of the old pagan world, was killed in an anti-pagan riot (415).  Thus, it is highly likely that the woman on whose life the story of Catherine is based (and who may even have been called Catherine) had an impressive education.  In addition, she was fearless in proclaiming Christianity.  While the former makes her stand out, it is the latter quality that caused her martyrdom.

Gold Scrolls Group, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
from a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), 1435-1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS W3, fol. 198v

Memories of her ordeal were probably cherished by her Christian contemporaries and within a generation of her death some version of it appears to have reached the ears of Constantine’s advisor, Eusebius, who describes in his Church History (340)
“And the women were not less manly than the men in behalf of the teaching of the Divine Word, as they endured conflicts with the men, and bore away equal prizes of virtue. And when they were dragged away for corrupt purposes, they surrendered their lives to death rather than their bodies to impurity. 
One only of those who were seized for adulterous purposes by the tyrant, a most distinguished and illustrious Christian woman in Alexandria, conquered the passionate and intemperate soul of Maximian by most heroic firmness.  Honorable on account of wealth and family and education, she esteemed all of these inferior to chastity. He urged her many times, but although she was ready to die, he could not put her to death, for his desire was stronger than his anger.” 2

Memories of Catherine’s bravery earned her a place in the liturgy of the Greek-speaking Church and eventually worked into the Latin-speaking Church as well.  Much has been lost, of course, during the confusion and destruction which followed the Barbarian invasions of the fifth century and the Arab Muslim invasions of the seventh and later centuries.  Indeed, it is remarkable that anything survived.  The earliest existing liturgical reference to her that has so far been identified comes from the seventh century.  The next two centuries saw a gradual increase in references until by the early tenth century there was a popular account of her martyrdom, the Passio of St. Catherine, a feast day already set as November 25, with hymns and prayers already in circulation and with the beginnings of an iconographic tradition already established. 

Byzantine Illuminator, Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and the Philosophers
from Menologium Basilianum
Constantinople, c. 1000
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
MS, Fol. 207 
One of the earliest images we have is that found in the book titled Menologium Basilianum, a book of prayers composed for the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, written and illuminated around the year 1000.  The image shows Catherine, wearing Byzantine court dress and a crown, about to be decapitated.  To the left the newly converted philosophers suffer martyrdom by fire for their conversion, while above their heads appears the hand of God. 

Lieven van Lathem, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
from the Warburg Hours
Belgian (Antwerp), 1460-1470
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M1178, fol. 101v
Interest turned to Mount Sinai, where her body was reputed to have been buried by angels who had carried it from Alexandria.  The Greek monks from the monastery founded by Justinian in the seventh century at the foot of the mountain traditionally believed to be Mount Sinai, and dedicated to the Virgin Mary under the title of Theotokos, set out to locate it.  During the tenth century bones were located on a nearby hill and a chapel was built to house them.  The hill became known as Jebel Katrin.  The bones were said to exude a healing oil.  Pilgrimages began. 

Eventually, sometime in the twelfth century, the bones were removed from the chapel and brought into the main monastery.  Over time the presence of the relics began to effect a conflation between the saint and the monastery and the dedication of the monastery changed to that of St. Catherine.  Even today, the Sinai monastery, which still exists, is known to the world as St. Catherine’s. 3

One of the twelfth-century pilgrims to the Sinai monastery came away with several small finger bones which he brought back to Europe and deposited in the recently founded monastery of Sainte-Trinité-du- mont-de-Rouen in Normandy. 4  Owing to the deposit of these relics and the ongoing Crusades, which brought people from Europe into the Orthodox East and even as far as Mount Sinai and Jerusalem, devotion to Saint Catherine spread throughout Western Europe from Rome to Spain and from England to Sweden.

Workshop of Nichlaus Gerhaert von Leyden, Reliquary Bust of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
German, c.1465
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

By the fourteenth century Saint Catherine of Alexandria had become one of the most popular saints in Europe.  And, in 1347, a baby girl, born in the Italian town of Siena, was baptized with her name.  The Siennese Catherine would identify with her namesake saint in many ways and would become, in her turn, a saint as well, Saint Catherine of Siena.  From that point on there is sometimes some confusion between the two, which I will deal with in another article.

Carlo Crivelli, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, c.1491-1494
London, National Gallery

Catherine of Alexandria remained one of the major saints of Europe, one of fourteen known as the “Holy Helpers”, to whom people appealed for their powerful intercession before the throne of God.  She is known by her attributes, which are a crown, the spiked wheel of her attempted martyrdom, the sword by which she was finally killed, a book which is symbolic of her intellectual achievements and the palm of martyrdom.  Frequently there is a small male figure shown at her feet.  This is the Emperor Maximian, whose efforts to subdue and pervert her she defeated.  She is patron saint of wheel wrights, of students, in particular female students, of unmarried women, of philosophers and theologians. (Text continues below the pictures.)
Stained Glass Roundel with Saint Catherine of Alexandria
South Netherlandish, c.1500
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters

Jean Bourdichon, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
from Grandes heures d'Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), c.1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 203v

Raphael, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, c.1507
London, National Gallery

Fernando Yanyez de la Almedina, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Spanish, c.1510
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Frankfort Master, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Panel from the Holy Family with Angel Musicians, Saints Catherine and Barbara
German, c.1510-1520
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Cristoforo Solari, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, 1514-1524
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saint Catherine of Alexandria
German, ca.1530
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Titian, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, c.1560
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Paolo Veronese, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, ca.1580-1585
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Federico Barocci, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, c. 1600
Chambery, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Bernardo Strozzi, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, c.1615
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum

Angelo Caroselli, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Italian, 17th Century (Before 1652)
Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Anonymous, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
French (?), 17th Century
Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Like many of the early saints, whose real lives became overgrown with legends, Catherine of Alexandria was “demoted” by the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council.  Her feast day was removed from the calendar of the universal Church in the pruning of multiple saints’ days that followed the Second Vatican Council. Removal from the calendar does not mean, as I have seen it asserted, that the Church has decided that the saint never existed.  It means that a deliberate choice has been made about which saints’ days should be celebrated universally, rather than in individual countries or dioceses. 5   There are thousands of Catholic saints and not all of them can be celebrated all over the world.  Saints, especially those from the time of the early centuries of the Church, may have few documentary sources to prove that they existed and, clearly, some of the stories of their sufferings may have been embroidered over time, but if does not follow that they did not live. It was not until much later in history that an elaborate procedure for canonizing individuals as saints was developed.

Michelino de' Molinari da Besozzo, Saint Catherine of Alexandria
From a Prayer Book
Italian (Milan), c. 1425-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 944, fol. 83v

In the case of Catherine of Alexandria, this removal was reversed in 2002 in the last revision of the Roman Missal, announced on March 18, 2002, when her feast was reinstated as an optional memorial on November 25. 6

For more on Saint Catherine of Alexandria see:
1.  Part II -- Martyrdom
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. 798. 
  2. Eusebius of Cesarea.  Church History, Volume 8, Chapter 14, ¶ 14-15.  Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890.)    Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.    
  3.  Walsh, Christine.  The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe,  Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, VT, 2007, p.40.
  4. Jenkins, Jacqueline and Lewis, Katherine J., eds. St. Katherine of Alexandria:  Texts and Contexts in Western Medieval Europe, Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium, 2003, p.8.  
  5. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963, Chapter IV, article 111.  “The saints have been traditionally honored in the Church and their authentic relics and images held in veneration. For the feasts of the saints proclaim the wonderful works of Christ in His servants, and display to the faithful fitting examples for their imitation. Lest the feasts of the saints should take precedence over the feasts which commemorate the very mysteries of salvation, many of them should be left to be celebrated by a particular Church or nation or family of religious; only those should be extended to the universal Church which commemorate saints who are truly of universal importance.”  See also, the Motu Proprio, Mysterii Paschalis (The Paschal Mystery) of Pope Paul VI, dated February 14, 1969, which implemented the changes, specifically Part II, paragraph 3.
  6. Press Release from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on the New Roman Missal, Intervention of Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez

1 comment:

Sally said...

What a stunning post!! I've been studying St Catherine for a while now. This gives me a greater understanding of the early stages of her story spreading and I LOVE all the pictures. You must have worked hard to piece this together. Thank you so much for sharing!