Friday, 8 April 2016

Saints' Lives: Saint Catherine of Alexandria

German, Middle Rhineland
pot-metal and colorless glass
with vitreous paint & silver
stain. 1440-1446
Cloisters Collection, NYC
Feast day: Nov 25
Patron Saint of philosophers, preachers, the coopers' guild
Invoked by: nursing women, sailors, ship-wreak victims and migraine sufferers
Attributes: wheel, palm leaf, sword, ring of mystical matrimony (receiving a ring of marriage from Christ, generally portrayed as a child on Mary’s lap)

The daughter of king Costus, Saint Catherine heard a tumult outside her palace and upon investigation found many Christians preparing to sacrifice to idols at the order of Emperor Maxentius. Grieved by what she saw, Catherine made her way to the Emperor and tried to reason with him that the things made by God are more impressive than things made by man.

Impressed by her eloquence and beauty, the Emperor agreed to discuss more with her, after their worship was over. He couldn’t compete with her cunning and knowledge, so he called 50 men known for their wisdom in a variety of subjects, promising them riches and fame if they could best her.

Catherine commended herself to God and was told to stand firm by an angel. Her arguments were so strong that the men realized they could not compete with her and, barring more evidence of their own gods’ worthiness, would have to convert to Christianity.

The Emperor had the men executed by fire, after Catherine instructed them in the faith, assuring them that their spilled blood would be their baptism.

Hans Memling, The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine
oil on panel, 1479-1480
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Reminded of her rank and power the girl proclaimed that she was Christ’s bride, and His love was more important than anything of this world. The Emperor ordered her imprisoned without food for twelve days. During the Emperor’s absence on affairs of state, his wife went with the captain of the guard, Porphyrius, to see her. They found angels treating her wounds. Catherine taught and converted them, along with 200 troops. A dove from heaven brought her food and Christ appeared, giving her encouragement.

When the Emperor next saw her, vibrant rather than starved, he would have tortured her guards were it not for her explanation that angels had fed her. Given the choice between sacrificing to pagan gods or being tortured and killed, she said she would willingly give her flesh for the Lord.

A prefect encouraged the Emperor to make a studded, wheeled torture device that would tear Catherine apart as a way of deterring other Christians with her horrible demise. Catherine prayed for the device to be destroyed in order to strengthen the faith of His followers. His blow shattered it, killing 4000 pagans in the process.

Left panel of a
reliquary triptych
Enamel on gold plated
England? early 15th C?
Louvre, Paris
The queen berated her husband and also refused to sacrifice to idols, so he ordered her breasts torn off with hot pincers and then that she be beheaded.  She asked Catherine to pray for her, and the girl told her she was exchanging her mortal spouse for an immortal one. When it was done, Porphyrius snatched the body and buried it.

The next day, the Emperor was angry that the queen’s body couldn’t be found and was going to torture people to find out what happened to it when Porphyrius stated that he had buried the body and had converted to Christianity. The Emperor called guards, who stated that they, too, were now Christian. The Emperor ordered them all beheaded.

The Emperor gave Catherine one last chance to sacrifice to idols, saying that if she did so she would be his new queen. But again she defied him and so was beheaded. Milk flowed from her body instead of blood, and angels carried her remains to Mount Sinai, where they buried it. Her bones were said to produce oil that heals the limbs of the weak.

De Voragine mentions that there was controversy as to which Emperor it was that Catherine dealt with, Maximinus or Maxentius, but that it was the one who reigned beginning in AD 310. 

German, lower Rhine valley
walnut, c. 1530
Catherine is admirable, we’re told, in five respects: wisdom, eloquence, constancy, chastity, and

Saints: A Year in Faith and Art adds that she refused marriage the governor of Egypt and Syria, being wed already to Christ.  This book also places her martyrdom around AD 305. points out that Saint Catherine's is one of the voices that spoke to Joan of Arc. 

While it’s a wonderful story, the first recorded account of St. Catherine’s life is from 500 years after her martyrdom and no evidence of her existence has been found. (Wikipedia.)

The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, translated by William Granger Ryan (volume II). Princeton University Press, 1995. pp 334-341.

Giorgi, Rosa. Saints: A Year in Faith and Art. Mondadori Electa, 2006. p 692.

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