Who was Saint Catherine of Alexandria? According to the Christian tradition she is a saint and virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century at the hands of the emperor Maxentius. Conforming to her hagiography she was both a princess and a noted scholar who became a Christian when she was 14 years. She converted hundreds of people to Christianity and was martyred around the age of 18. However, some scholars consider that the legend of Catherine of Alexandria is probably based on the life and murder of Greek philosopher Hypatia, with reversed roles of Christians and pagans.
The traditional narrative affirms that Catherine was the daughter of Constus, who was the governor of Alexandria during the reign of the emperor Maximian (286-305). From a very young age Catherine devoted herself to study.
She had a vision of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus which persuaded her to become a Christian; and when the persecutions began under Maxentius, she went to the emperor and reprimanded him for his cruelty. The emperor invited fifty of the best orators and philosophers to dispute with her, he hoped that they would refute her pro-Christian arguments, but it was Catherine who won the debate. And at the end, quite a few of her adversaries were conquered by her eloquence and declared themselves Christians.
Later, Catherine was imprisoned and brutally scourged for so long that her whole body was covered with wounds. It is said that the spectators wept with pity, while she stood with her eyes raised to heaven, not giving any sign of suffering or fear. The emperor ordered her to be imprisoned without food, so she would starve to death. According to the legend, during her imprisonment, her wounds were attended by angels and she was fed daily by a dove from heaven. Throughout the time of her confinement more then 200 people came to see her, including the emperor’s wife, all those visitors converted to Christianity.
When the dungeon was opened twelve days later there were a bright light and a fragrant perfume filling it, Catherine came forth radiant. When Maxentius understood that he made a mistake in trying to make her give in by torture, he tried to win Catherine over by proposing marriage, which she refused and declared to be the spouse of Jesus to whom she had consecrated her virginity.
Maxentius, furious with her refusal, condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but at her touch it shattered. Then, he ordered her to be beheaded.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Art
The legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria aroused the interest of several artists, what explains the countless images depicting the saint, especially in the late Middle Ages, that it was when the account of her mystical marriage makes it first literary appearance.
Saint Catherine is easily recognised as she is richly dressed and crowned, often she holds or stands next to a segment of the wheel as an attribute; she also often carries either a martyr’s palm or the sword with which she was executed. In some art works she is depicted with the Infant Christ held by the Virgin and placing a ring, which is one her attributes, on her finger according to some literary accounts, however, in the version of the Golden Legend, Christ appears as an adult and the marriage takes place among a crowd of angels and the celestial court.
Among the most notable, but later, painting of Saint Catherina are single figures by Raphael, Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. At first glance, we can see that the works of Gentileschi and Caravaggio share some similarities, however, when analysing the paintings, some important differences appear, especially in the treatment of the theme. Also, thanks to the restoration studies of both we can know important details and changes that were made by the artists and that help us to understand both works much better.
Caravaggio’s painting is part of the permanent collection of the Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza, it was recently restored, and the museum created a small exhibition and a publication to explain all the restoration process. Caravaggio painted the saint in a strikingly natural pose richly dressed and kneeling on a cushion. She gazes at the viewer surrounded by the attributes of her martyrdom: the breaking wheel, the martyr’s palm, and the sword. The scene presents the characteristic chiaroscuro of Caravaggio’s works, as well as his approach to light and volume is evident in this canvas.
This painting of Gentileschi is a recent acquisition of the National Gallery, which shared all the restoration process of this painting in social networks, so anyone could follow, and as you know the institution is holding now a solo exhibition of the artist.
Gentileschi’s painting is a self-portrait, in which she depicted herself in the guise of the Saint. According to some scholars it was not uncommon that the artist used herself as a model when painting images of female martyrs. In the painting the saint is wearing a turban and oriented towards the viewer. Saint Catherine leans on the broken wheel, which is one of her attributes, and her right hand is delicately holding the martyr’s palm. Gentileschi presents the saint as an example of resilience.
Frequently, self-portraits are seen as a reflection on Gentileschi’s past, and this work has been interpreted by some critics as symbol of suffering and violence that were overcome.
- More than 1100 years after Catherine of Alexandria’s martyrdom, Joan of Arc identified her as one of the saints who counselled her.
- The Eastern Orthodox Church venerates her as a great martyr and celebrates her feast on 24/25 November, depending on the regional tradition. In Catholicism, she is traditionally revered as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers and she is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on 25 November. Her feast was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 and restored in 2002 as an optional memorial.
- The emperor Justinian established the Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt un the 6th century. Countless people keep making the pilgrimage to the monastery to receive miracle healing from Saint Catherine.
- There is a film released in 2014 about Catherine, it is called Decline of an Empire.