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St Catherine of Alexandria

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Friday, August 23, 2019

PEN PORTRAIT No 14

Illustration of St Catherine of Alexandria by Jim GodfreySaint Catherine of Alexandria, virgin and martyr, was among the most venerated female saints of medieval England. She is the patron saint of young girls, students, philosophers, and craftsmen working with wheels

 

Catherine the evangelist

According to legend, Catherine was a 4th century noble girl of exceptional learning from the north Egyptian city of Alexandria, famous for its Great Library (the largest in the ancient world). It was also an important centre of Hellenistic culture and the capital of Roman and Byzantine Egypt for almost 1000 years.

Her story, not written down for many centuries, says that she was persecuted for her Christian faith after protesting against the treatment of her fellow Christians at the hands of Maxentius, Roman Emperor from 306 to 312 AD. Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, Catherine boldly denounced idol worship to the emperor on a day of pagan rituals taking place at his command in Alexandria. Amidst the fires and smoke and the cries of the animals being sacrificed, she rebuked him for forcing his subjects to deny Christ.

Maxentius responded by summoning fifty pagan scholars, philosophers, and orators, the foremost of the empire, to debate with Catherine. Promised the help of divine wisdom by Archangel Michael, who had appeared to her in prison, she brilliantly vanquished their arguments. Enlightened, the scholars confessed their newfound faith in Christ, for which they were burnt alive.

 

Catherine the martyr

Catherine steadfastly withstood all the infuriated emperor’s flatteries, threats, and tortures, which included the threat of being broken on a spiked wheel. This was a particularly gruesome torture whereby the victim was tied to the spokes of a large cartwheel (later called a Catherine wheel, and the inspiration for the firework of the same name), and then struck with hammers. In her case, however, the machine broke apart, injuring bystanders. In the end she was beheaded, on 24 November 305 (her feast day), legend says that instead of blood, milk gushed from the wound. Angels bore Catherine’s body to the highest peak of Mount Sinai where its presence was miraculously revealed to monks during the building of their fortress monastery in the 6th century. They brought her relics to the monastery where they have exuded a heavenly fragrance ever since.

Pilgrims visiting St Catherine’s Greek Orthodox Monastery have been presented by the monks with a ring signifying pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain. The ring represents another element of the legend, when Catherine was led through the wilderness by the Virgin Mary and granted a vision of Christ seated in majesty. Due to this mystical experience she became a ‘bride of Christ’.

In England, Catherine’s cult was as widespread as anywhere in the West. Sixty-two churches were dedicated to her and 170 medieval bells still bear her name. The earliest English Life was written in the 13th century, and the earliest recorded miracle play was one in her honour in Dunstable c.1110. Mural paintings of her were also very common: the earliest (c.1225) is at Winchester Cathedral, and the most complete cycle is in Little Missenden, Bucks, c.1270. In all at least fifty-six English murals of her are known to have existed. Cycles of her life in stained glass survive in whole or in part at York Minster, Clavering (Essex), Combs (Suffolk), and Balliol College, Oxford.

The evidence for Catherine's cult, however, is late: the monk Epiphanios who visited Sinai in 820 knew nothing of her. Indeed, it is now accepted that her legend is fictitious, and her cult was suppressed by the Holy See in 1969.

 

At Christ Church, Catherine is easily the most represented saint in the Cathedral (often shown holding her emblem, a spiked wheel). The oldest images of her are in two of the 14th century windows in the Latin Chapel. Her statue also appears in the chancel arch, and she may be one of the three crowned ladies on the diocesan arms above the Bishop’s Throne. She appears in Burne-Jones’s Frideswide Window, teaching Frideswide to read, as well as in his St Catherine Window in the Chapel of Remembrance.