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Catherine of Alexandria

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Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Bernardino Luini – Portrait of Catherine of Alexandria
(National Art Museum of Azerbaijan)
Martyr and Virgin
Born c. 282
Alexandria, Egypt[1]
Died c. 305
Alexandria, Egypt
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Churches
Oriental Orthodox Churches
Anglican Communion
Lutheran Churches
Major shrine Saint Catherine's Monastery
Feast 25 November
24 November (Orthodox churches of Russian background)
Attributes the "breaking wheel"; sword; with a crown at her feet; hailstones; bridal veil and ring; dove; scourge; book; woman arguing with pagan philosophers[2] decapitation
Patronage Unmarried girls, Aalsum; apologists; craftsmen who work with a wheel (potters, spinners); archivists; dying people; educators; girls; jurists; knife sharpeners; lawyers; librarians; libraries; Balliol College; Massey College; maidens; mechanics; millers; milliners; hat-makers; nurses; philosophers; preachers; scholars; schoolchildren; scribes; secretaries; spinsters; stenographers; students; tanners; theologians; University of Oviedo; University of Paris; haberdashers; wheelwrights; Żejtun, Malta; Żurrieq, Malta; Pagbilao, Quezon, Philippines; Carcar City, Cebu, Philippines; Katerini, Greece

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, also known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel and The Great Martyr Saint Catherine (Greek: ἡ Ἁγία Αἰκατερίνα ἡ Μεγαλομάρτυς) 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. According to her hagiography, she was both a princess and a noted scholar, who became a Christian around the age of fourteen, and converted hundreds of people to Christianity. She was martyred around the age of 18. 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.[3]

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;[4] however, she continued to be commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on 25 November.[5] In 2002, her feast was restored to the General Roman Calendar as an optional memorial.


  • Life 1
    • Torture and martyrdom 1.1
    • Burial 1.2
  • Historicity 2
  • Medieval cult 3
  • Veneration 4
  • Legacy 5
  • In art 6
    • Contemporary media 6.1
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


According to the traditional narrative, Catherine was the daughter of Constus, the governor of Alexandrian Egypt during the reign of the emperor Maximian (305–313).[6] From a young age she had devoted herself to study. A vision of the Madonna and Child persuaded her to become a Christian. When the persecutions began under Maxentius, she went to the emperor and rebuked him for his cruelty. The emperor summoned fifty 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. Several of her adversaries, conquered by her eloquence, declared themselves Christians and were at once put to death.[7]

Torture and martyrdom

Icon of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with scenes from her martyrdom.

Catherine was then scourged and imprisoned, during which time over 200 people came to see her, including Maxentius' wife, Valeria Maximilla; all converted to Christianity and were subsequently martyred.[8] 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. The saint refused, declaring that her spouse was Jesus Christ, to whom she had consecrated her virginity. The furious emperor condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but, at her touch, it shattered.[7] Maxentius finally had her beheaded.


A tradition dating to about 800 states that angels carried her corpse to Mount Sinai,[9] where, in the 6th century, the Eastern Emperor Justinian had established what is now Saint Catherine's Monastery in Egypt (which is in fact dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ).


St Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi

Donald Attwater dismisses the "legend" of St. Catherine, 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."[10] 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 (c. AD 350–370 – March 415).[11][12]

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.[13] Although Eusebius did not name the woman, she had been identified with Dorothea of Alexandria.

The earliest surviving account of St. Catherine's life comes over 500 years after the traditional date of her martyrdom, in the menologium attributed to Emperor Basil I (866), although the rediscovery of her relics at Saint Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai was about 800,[14] 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 main church was built between 548 and 565, and the monastery became a major pilgrimage site for devotees of Catherine and the other relics and sacred sites there. Saint Catherine's Monastery survives, and is a famous repository of early Christian art, architecture and illuminated manuscripts that remains open to tourists and visiting scholars. The site is sacred to Christianity and Islam.

In her book The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe Christine Walsh discusses "the historical Katherine", and concludes, "As we have seen, the cult of St Katherine of Alexandria probably originated in oral traditions from the 4th-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."[15]

Medieval cult

Catherine of Alexandria, by Carlo Crivelli.

Saint 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 Christ 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 issuing from her body.[14] There are several pilgrimage narratives that chronicle the journey to Mount Sinai, most notably those of John Mandeville and Friar Felix Fabri.[16] 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.[17][18] 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 in various texts, rather than by physical evidence.[19]

St. Catharine's College, Cambridge was founded on St Catharine’s Day (25 November) 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 Catherine of Valois, mother of Henry VI of England, 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, 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.[20] Among these, St. Catherine in particular was used as an exemplar for women, a status which at times superseded her intercessory role.[21] 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."[22] 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.[23]


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.

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.

In many places her feast was celebrated with the utmost solemnity, servile work being suppressed and the devotions 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 17th 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,[9] received additional éclat in France in the beginning of the 15th 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.[7]

Ring of St Catherine, given to pilgrims visiting Mount Sinai.

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.


The pyrotechnic Catherine-wheel, from which sparks fly off in all directions, took its name from the saint's wheel of martyrdom.[13]

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 or stands next to a segment of her wheel as an attribute. She also often carries either a martyr's palm or the sword with which she was actually executed. 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",[24] 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

See also


  1. ^ Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Accessed 11 December 2014.
  2. ^
  3. ^ Williard Trask, Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words (Turtle Point Press, 1996), 99
  4. ^ Calendarium Romanum (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969), p. 147
  5. ^ Martyrologium Romanum (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001 ISBN 88-209-7210-7)
  6. ^ "Greatmartyr Catherine of Alexandria", Orthodox Church in America
  7. ^ a b c "Clugnet, Léon. "St. Catherine of Alexandria." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 1 May 2013". 1908-11-01. Retrieved 2013-08-26. 
  8. ^ "Saint Catherine of Alexandria". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2010-10-29. 
  9. ^ a b "Foley O.F.M., Leonard. ''Saint of the Day, Lives, Lessons, and Feast,(revised by Pat McCloskey O.F.M.), Franciscan Media".  
  10. ^ Mateus Soares de Azevedo (25 April 2005). Ye shall know the truth: Christianity and the perennial philosophy. World Wisdom, Inc. p. 324.  
  11. ^ Harold Thayer Davis, Alexandria: The Golden City (Principia Press of Illinois, 1957), p 441
  12. ^ Allen, pp. 214–217
  13. ^ a b "Lives of Saints"Catherine of Alexandria, . John J. Crawley & Co., Inc. Retrieved 2013-08-26. 
  14. ^ a b S.R.T.O d'Ardeene and E.J. Dobson, Seinte Katerine: Re-Edited from MS Bodley 34 and other Manuscripts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), xiv.
  15. ^ Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, 2007, p 143The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval EuropeWalsh, Christine.
  16. ^ John Mandeville, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1964); Felix Fabri, The Wanderings of Felix Fabri (New York: AMS Press, 1971), 217.
  17. ^ Walsh, Christine. "The Role of the Normans in the Development of the Cult of St. Katherine", St. Katherine of Alexandria: Texts and Contexts in Western Medieval Europe (eds. Jacqueline Jenkins and Katherine J. Lewis) (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2003), p.31
  18. ^ Lewis, Katherine J., "Pilgrimage and the Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria in Late Medieval England", St. Katherine of Alexandria: Texts and Contexts in Western Medieval Europe (eds. Jacqueline Jenkins and Katherine J. Lewis) (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2003),p.44
  19. ^ Lewis, "Pilgrimage and the Cult of St. Katherine", 49–51.
  20. ^ John Bugge, Virginitas: An Essay in the History of the Medieval Ideal (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1975), 132; Katherine J. Lewis, The Cult of St. Katherine of Alexiandria in Late Medieval England (Rochester: The Boydell Press, 2000), 229; Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400-c. 1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 174.
  21. ^ Katherine J. Lewis, "Model Girls? Virgin-Martyrs and the Training of Young Women in Late Medieval England" in Young Medieval Womeen eds. Katherine J. Lewis, Noel James Menuge and Kim M. Phillips (New York: St. Martin's PRess, 1999).
  22. ^ Christine de Pizan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies trans. by Sarah Lawson (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 146; Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies trans. by Rosalind Brown-Grant (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 203; Rebecca Barnhouse, The Book of the Knight of the Tower (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 126, 193.
  23. ^ Allen, 217
  24. ^ Life of St "Katherine" in William Caxton's English version of the Golden Legend.
  25. ^


  • Allen, Prudence, The concept of woman: the Aristotelian revolution, 750 BC-AD 1250, 1997 (2nd edn.), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, ISBN 978-0-8028-4270-1
  • Walsh, Christine. The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe, (Ashgate 2007)

External links

  • Passio sanctae Katharinae — 11th century (between 1033–1048); at Latin Wikisource
  • Details of Saint Catherine's life — Saint Catherine Orthodox Church; includes a gallery of icons of the saint
  • St Catherine's church in Muhu island (Estonia)
  • Representations of Saint Catherine
  • St. Catherine of Alexandria at the Christian Iconography web site
  • "The Life of St. Catherine, Virgin and Martyr" from the Caxton translation of the Golden Legend
  •  "Catharine".  
  • Colonnade Statue St Peter's Square
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