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St. Catherine of Alexandria

St Catherine of Alexandria (282-305), also known as St Catherine of the Wheel and The Great Martyr St Catherine, was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is, according to tradition, a Christian saint and virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century at the hands of the pagan emperor, Maxentius. She is a patroness for apologists, educators, archivists, lawyers, librarians, spinsters, maidens, jurists and many more.

According to her hagiography, she was both a princess and a noted scholar, who became a Christian around the age of fourteen, and herself converted hundreds of people to Christianity. Over 1,100 years following her martyrdom, St. Joan of Arc identified Catherine as one of the Saints who appeared to her and counselled her.

The Orthodox Church venerates her as a Great Martyr, and celebrates her feast day on 24 or 25 November (depending on the local tradition). In the Catholic Church she is traditionally revered as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. In 1969 the Catholic Church removed her feast day from the General Roman Calendar; however, she continued to be commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on November 25. In 2002, her feast was restored to the General Roman Calendar as an optional memorial.

Life story

According to the traditional narrative, Catherine was the beautiful daughter of the pagan King Costus and Queen Sabinella, who governed Alexandria. Her superior intelligence combined with diligent study left her exceedingly well-versed in all the arts and sciences, and in philosophy. Having decided to remain a virgin all her life, she announced that she would only marry someone who surpassed her in beauty, intelligence, wealth, and dignity. This has been interpreted as an early foreshadowing of her eventual discovery of Christ. "His beauty was more radiant than the shining of the sun, His wisdom governed all creation, His riches were spread throughout all the world." Though raised a pagan, she became an ardent Christian in her teenage years, having received a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, in which the Blessed Virgin gave Catherine to Jesus in mystical marriage.

As a young adult, she visited her contemporary, the Roman Emperor Maxentius, and attempted to convince him of the moral error in persecuting Christians for not worshipping idols. The emperor arranged for a plethora of the best pagan philosophers and orators to dispute with her, hoping that they would refute her pro-Christian arguments, but Catherine won the debate and succeeded in converting all of them to Christianity, for which the philosophers and orators were executed by an enraged Maxentius. Catherine was then scourged and put in prison, during which time over two hundred people came to see her, including Maxentius' wife the empress, all of whom converted to Christianity and were therefore martyred. Upon the failure of Maxentius to make Catherine yield by way of torture, he tried to win the beautiful and wise princess over by proposing marriage to her, at which point in time the Saint declared that her spouse was Jesus Christ, to whom she had consecrated her virginity. The furious emperor condemned Catherine to death on the spiked breaking wheel, an instrument of torture. The wheel was miraculously destroyed, however, in answer to St. Catherine's prayer, and so Maxentius had to settle for beheading her.

According to a Christian tradition dating to about 800, angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where, in the 6th century, the Eastern Emperor Justinian had established what is now known as Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai, (in fact dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ). The main church was built between 548 and 565, and the monastery became a major pilgrimage site for Catherine and the other relics and sacred sites there. Saint Catherine's Monastery survives, a famous repository of early Christian art, architecture and illuminated manuscripts that remains open to tourists and visiting scholars.


Donald Attwater characterizes the "legend" of St. Catherine as "the most preposterous of its kind", citing the lack of any "positive evidence that she ever existed outside the mind of some Greek writer who first composed what he intended to be simply an edifying romance." Harold T. Davis confirms that "assiduous research has failed to identify Catherine with any historical personage" and has theorized that Catherine was an invention inspired to provide a counterpart to the story of the slightly later pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria (ca. AD 350–370–March 415).

Another possibility for the inspiration of St. Catherine, comes from the writer, Eusebius, who wrote around the year 320, that the Emperor had ordered a young Christian woman to come to his palace to become his mistress, and when she refused, he had her punished, by having her banished, and her estates confiscated.

The earliest surviving account of St. Catherine's life comes over 500 years after the traditional date of her martyrdom, in the monologium attributed to Emperor Basil I (866), although the rediscovery of her relics at Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai was about 800, and presumably implies an existing cult at that date (the common name of the monastery developed after the discovery). The monastery was built by order of Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527-565), enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush ordered to be built by Helena, the mother of Constantine I, at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush; the living bush on the grounds is purportedly the original. It is also referred to as "St. Helen's Chapel." The site is sacred to Christianity and Islam.

In her book The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe (Ashgate 2007), Christine Walsh devotes Chapter 2, "The Historical Katherine", to the question of Katherine's historical existence. In Chapter 8, "Conclusion", she writes in summary "As we have seen, the cult of St Katherine of Alexandria probably originated in oral traditions from the fourth-century Diocletianic Persecutions of Christians in Alexandria. There is no evidence that Katherine herself was a historical figure and she may well have been a composite drawn from memories of women persecuted for their faith. Many aspects of her Passio are clearly legendary and conform to well-known hagiographical topoi."

Medieval cult

St. Catherine was one of the most important saints in the religious culture of the late middle ages, and arguably considered the most important of the virgin martyrs, a group including Saint Agnes, Margaret of Antioch, Saint Barbara, Saint Lucy, Valerie of Limoges and many others. Her power as an intercessor was renowned, and firmly established in most versions of her hagiography, in which she specifically entreats Jesus at the moment of her death to answer the prayers of those who remember her martyrdom and invoke her name.

The development of her medieval cult was spurred by the reported rediscovery of her body around the year 800 at Mount Sinai, with hair still growing and a constant stream of healing oil emitting from her body. There is a handful of pilgrimage narratives that chronicle the journey to Mount Sinai, most notably those of John Mandeville and Friar Felix Fabri. However, the monastery at Mount Sinai was the best-known site of Catherine pilgrimage, but was also the most difficult to reach. The most prominent western shrine was the monastery in Rouen that claimed to house Catherine's fingers. It was not alone in the west, however, accompanied by many, scattered shrines and altars dedicated to Catherine, which existed throughout France and England. Some were better known sites, such as Canterbury and Westminster, which claimed a phial of her oil, brought back from Mount Sinai by Edward the Confessor. Other shrines, such as St. Catherine's Hill, Hampshire were the focus of generally local pilgrimage, many of which are only identified by brief mentions to them in various texts, rather than by physical evidence.

St. Catharine's College, Cambridge was founded on St Catharine's day (November 25), 1473 by Robert Woodlark (the then provost of King's College Cambridge) who sought to create a small community of scholars who would study exclusively theology and philosophy.

Wodelarke may have chosen the name in homage to the mother of King Henry VI who was called Catharine, although it is more likely that it was named as part of the Renaissance cult of St Catharine, who was a patron saint of learning. At any rate, the college was ready for habitation and formally founded on St Catharine's day (November 25) 1473

Saint Catherine also had a large female following, whose devotion was less likely to be expressed through pilgrimage. The importance of the virgin martyrs as the focus of devotion and models for proper feminine behavior increased during the late middle ages. Among these, St. Catherine in particular was used as an exemplar for women, a status which at times superseded her intercessory role. Both Christine de Pizan and Geoffrey de la Tour Landry point to Catherine as a paragon for young women, emphasizing her model of virginity and "wifely chastity." From the early 14th century the Mystic marriage of Saint Catherine first appears in hagiographical literature and, soon after, in art. In the Western church, concerns over the authenticity of her legend began to reduce her importance in the 18th century.

Her principal symbol is the spiked wheel, which has become known as the Catherine wheel, and her feast day is celebrated on 25 November by most Christian churches. However, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates it on 24 November. The exact origin of this tradition is not known. In 11th-century Kyivan-Rus, the feast day was celebrated on 25 November. Saint Dimitry of Rostov in his Kniga zhyttia sviatykh (Book of the Lives of the Saints), T.1 (1689) places the date of celebration on 24 November. A story that Empress Catherine the Great did not wish to share her patronal feast with the Leavetaking of the feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos and hence changed the date is not supported by historical evidence. One of the first Roman Catholic churches to be built in Russia, the Catholic Church of St. Catherine, was named after Catherine of Alexandria because she was Catherine the Great's patron.

The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia describes her historical importance as follows:

� Ranked with St Margaret and St Barbara as one of the fourteen most helpful saints in heaven, she was unceasingly praised by preachers and sung by poets. It is believed that Jacques-Benigne Bossuet dedicated to her one of his most beautiful panegyrics and that Adam of St. Victor wrote a magnificent poem in her honour: Vox Sonora nostri chori, etc. In many places her feast was celebrated with the utmost solemnity, servile work being suppressed and the devotions being attended by great numbers of people. In several dioceses of France it was observed as a Holy Day of Obligation up to the beginning of the seventeenth century, the splendour of its ceremonial eclipsing that of the feasts of some of the Apostles. Numberless chapels were placed under her patronage and her statue was found in nearly all churches, representing her according to medieval iconography with a wheel, her instrument of torture. Meanwhile, owing to several circumstances in his life, Saint Nicholas of Myra was considered the patron of young bachelors and students, and Saint Catherine became the patroness of young maidens and female students. Looked upon as the holiest and most illustrious of the virgins of Christ after the Blessed Virgin Mary, it was natural that she, of all others, should be worthy to watch over the virgins of the cloister and the young women of the world. The spiked wheel having become emblematic of the saint, wheelwrights and mechanics placed themselves under her patronage. Finally, as according to tradition, she not only remained a virgin by governing her passions and conquered her executioners by wearying their patience, but triumphed in science by closing the mouths of sophists, her intercession was implored by theologians, apologists, pulpit orators, and philosophers. Before studying, writing, or preaching, they besought her to illumine their minds, guide their pens, and impart eloquence to their words. This devotion to St. Catherine which assumed such vast proportions in Europe after the Crusades, received additional eclat in France in the beginning of the fifteenth century, when it was rumoured that she had spoken to Joan of Arc and, together with St. Margaret, had been divinely appointed Joan's adviser.

Devotion to Saint Catherine remains strong amongst Orthodox Christians. With the relative ease of travel in the modern age, pilgrimages to Saint Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai have increased. Pilgrims to her monastery on Mt Sinai are given a ring, which has been placed on the relics of the saint as an evlogia (blessing) in remembrance of their visit.

In art

Catherine is very frequently depicted in art, especially in the late Middle Ages, which is also the time that the account of St. Catherine's Mystical Marriage makes its first literary appearance. She can usually be easily recognised as she is richly dressed and crowned, as befits her rank as a princess, and often holds a segment of her wheel as an attribute, or a martyr's palm. She often has long unbound blonde or reddish hair (unbound as she is unmarried). The vision of Saint Catherine of Alexandria usually shows the Infant Christ, held by the Virgin, placing a ring (one of her attributes) on her finger, following some literary accounts, although in the version in the Golden Legend he appears to be adult, and the marriage takes place among a great crowd of angels and "all the celestial court", and these may also be shown.

She is very frequently shown attending on the Virgin and Child, and is usually prominent in scenes of the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines, showing a group of virgin saints surrounding the Virgin and Child. Notable later paintings of Catherine include single figures by Raphael (National Gallery) and Caravaggio (Madrid), Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum).

Contemporary media

� The opening scene of The Sopranos episode 38, "Amour Fou", features mob wife Carmela Soprano and her daughter Meadow Soprano in an art museum, where (among other topics) they discuss Jusepe de Ribera's painting: The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

� A movie project about Catherine, called Katherine of Alexandria, began production in January 2010.

The text in this box was generated from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the CC-BY-SA.

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