Iconography of St. Catherine


As patroness she has several attributes. She bears the palm as martyr; the sword expresses the manner of her death; the crown is hers of right, as sovereign princess; she holds the book as significant of her learning; she tramples on the pagan tyrant. All these attributes may be found in the effigies of other saints ; but the especial and peculiar attribute of St. Catherine is the wheel.   When entire, it is an emblem of the torture to which she was exposed: in the later pictures it is oftener broken ; it is then an historical attribute, it represents the instrument by which she was to have been tortured, and the miracle through which she was redeemed.  She leans upon it, or it lies at her feet, or an angel bears it over her head. In Raphael's St. Catherine, in our National Gallery, she leans on the wheel, and no other attribute is introduced: this, however, is very uncommon; the characteristic sword and the book are generally present, even where the crown and palm are omitted. The grim turbaned head of Maximin, placed beneath her feet, is confined, with very few exceptions, to the sculptural and Gothic effigies and the stained glass of the fourteenth century.

The Life of St. Catherine

Taken from--Jameson.  Sacred and Ledgendary Art, vol. II.  London: Longmans, Green, and Company (1890).

Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine the Great, had a 
first wife before be married the Empress Helena. She died in giving 
birth to a son, whose name was Costis, and whom his father married 
to the only daughter and heiress of the King of Egypt, a virtuous  princess, whose name was Sabinella; with her he lived and reigned in great prosperity and happiness for several years, but after the law of the Pagans, for they were, unhappily, idolaters.

Like all mothers who bring, forth saints, Queen Sabinella, had a prophetic dream, in which was prefigured the glory of her first-born. In due time she gave birth to a daughter, who was named Catherine. At the moment she came into the world, a glory of light was seen to play around her head. From her earliest infancy she was the wonder of all who beheld her, for grace of mind and person. 'She drank so plenteously from the well of wisdom,' that at the age of fifteen there was none comparable to her in the learning and philosophy of the Gentiles. 

She could have 'talked of stars and firmaments and firedrakes,' of 'sines and co-sines and fixed ratios,' -she could have answered all those hard things which the Queen of Sheba propounded to King Solomon. The works of Plato were her favourite study; and the teaching of Socrates had prepared her to receive a higher and a purer doctrine.

The king her father, who loved her, ordained to wait upon her seven of the wisest masters that could be gotten together; but Catherine, divinely endowed, so far excelled them all, that they who came to teach her became her disciples. Moreover, he ordained for her a tower in his palace, with divers chambers furnished with all kinds of mathematical instruments in which she might study at pleasure.

When Catherine was about fourteen, her father, King Costis, died, and left her heiress of his kingdom. But when she was queen, Catherine showed the same contempt for all worldly care and royal splendour that she bad hitherto exhibited, for she shut herself up in her palace, and devoted herself to the study of philosophy.

Therefore says the old English legend, "when the people saw
this, they were discontented. And the nobles of that country came to
their lady and queen, and desired her to call a parliament. And the
estates being met, they besought her, as she was so much given to
study and learning, that she would be pleased to take a husband who
should assist her in the government of the country, and lead them
forth to war.

When she heard this, she was much abashed and troubled. And she said, "What manner of man is this that I must marry?"  "Madam," said the speaker, "you are our most sovereign lady and queen, and it is well known to all that ye possess four notable gifts; the first is, that ye be come of the Most noble blood in the whole world; the second, that ye be a great inheritor, and the greatest that liveth of women to our knowledge; the third, that ye, in science, cunning, and wisdom, surpass all others; and the fourth, that in bodily shape and beauty there is none like you: wherefore we beseech ye, Lady, that these good gifts, in which the great God bath endowed you beyond all creatures else, may move you to take a lord to your husband, to the end that ye may have an heir, to the comfort and joy of your people."

“Then,” answered the young Queen Catherine, with a grave countenance, “if God and nature have wrought so great virtues in us, we are so much the more bound to love him, and to please him, and to think humbly of all his great gifts; therefore, mylords and lieges, give heed to my words. He that shall be in husband and the lord of mine heart shall also possess four notable gifts, and be so endowed that all  creatures shall have need of him, and he shall have need of none. He shall be of so noble blood that all men shall worship him, and so great that I shall never think that I have made him king; so rich, that he shall pass all others in riches; so full of beauty, that the angels of God  shall desire to behold him; and so benign, that he can gladly forgive all offences done unto him. And if ye find me such an one, I will take him for my husband and the lord of my heart." 

With this she cast down her eyes meekly, and held her still. And 
all her lords and princes and councillors looked upon each other and 
knew not what to reply ; for they said, “Such a one as she hath 
devised there never was none, and never shall be; " and they saw 
there was no remedy in the matter. Her mother, Sabinella, also intreated her saying, "Alas, my daughter, where shall ye find such a husband?" and Catherine answered, “If I do not find him, he shall find me for other will I none; " -and she had a great conflict and battle to keep her virginity. 

Now there was a certain holy hermit who dwelt in a desert about, 
two days' journey from the city of Alexandria; to him the Virgin Mary 
appeared out of heaven, and sent him with a message of comfort to the young Queen Catherine, to tell her that the husband whom she had desired was her son, who was greater than any monarch of this world, being himself the King of Glory, and the Lord of all power and might.  Catherine desired to behold her future bridegroom. The hermit therefore gave her a picture representing the Virgin Mary and her divine Son; and when Catherine beheld the heavenly face of the Redeemer of the world, her heart was filled with love of his beauty and innocence: she forgot her books, her spheres, and her philosophers; -Plato and Socrates became to her tedious as a twice-told tale.  She placed the picture in her study, and that night as she slept upon her bed she had a dream. 

In her dream she journeyed by the side of the old hermit, who conducted her towards a sanctuary on the top of a high mountain; and when they reached the portal, there came out to meet them a glorious company of angels clothed in white, and wearing chaplets of white lilies on their heads; and Catherine, being dazzled, fell on her face, and an angel said to her, Stand up, our dear sister Catherine, and be right welcome." Then they led her to an inner court, where stood a second company of angels clothed in purple, and wearing chaplets of red roses on their heads; and Catherine fell down before them, but they said, "Stand up, our dear sister Catherine for thee hath the King of Glory delighted to honour."  Then Catherine with a trembling joy, stood up and followed them.  They led her on to an inner chamber in which was a royal queen standing in her state,  whose beauty and majesty might no heart think, nor pen of man describe, and around her a glorious company of angels, saints, and martyrs: they, taking Catherine by the hand, presented her to the queen, saying, "Our most gracious sovereign Lady, Empress of Heaven, and Mother of the King of Blessedness, be pleased that we here present to you our dear sister, whose name is written in the book of life, beseeching you of your benign grace to receive her asyour daughter and handmaiden."

Our Blessed Lady, full of all grace and goodness, bid her welcome, and, taking her by the hand, led her to our Lord, saying  to him, "Most sovereign honour, joy, and glory be to you, King of Blessedness, my Lord and my Son! Lo! I have brought into your blessed presence your servant and maid Catherine, which for your love hath renounced all earthly things!"   But the Lord turned away his bead, and refused her saying, "She is not fair nor beautiful enough for me."  The maiden, hearing these words, awoke in a passion of grief, and wept till it was morning. 

Then she called to her the hermit, and fell at his feet, and declared her vision, saying, "What shall I do to become worthy of my celestial bridegroom? "  The hermit, seeing she was still in the darkness of heathenism instructed her fully in the Christian faith: then he baptized her, and, with her, her mother, Sabinella.

That night, as Catherine slept upon her bed, the Blessed Virgin appeared to her again, accompanied by her divine Son, and with them a noble company of saints and angels. And Mary again presented  Catherine to the Lord of Glory, saying, "Lo! she hath been baptized, and I myself have been her godmother!"   Then the Lord smiled upon her, and held out his hand and plighted his troth to her, putting a ring on her finger.   When Catherine awoke, remembering her dream she looked and saw the ring upon her finger; and henceforth  regarding herself as the betrothed of Christ, she despised the world, and all the pomp of earthly sovereignty, thinking only of the day us that her which should reunite her with her celestial and espoused Lord.  Thus she dwelt in her palace in 
Alexandria, until the good queen Sabinella died, and she was left alone.' 

At this time the tyrant Maximin, who is called by the Greeks Maxeritius, greatly persecuted the Church, and, being come to Alexandria, he gathered all the Christians together, and commanded  them, on pain of severest torments, to worship the heathen gods.  St. Catherine, hearing in the recesses of her palace the cries of the people, sallied forth and confronted the tyrant on the 
steps of the temple, pleading for her fellow-Christians, and demonstrating'avec force syllogismes' the truth of the Christian and the falsehood of the Pagan religion.  And when she had argued for a long time after the manner of the philosophers, quoting Plato and Socrates, and the books of the Sibyls, she looked round upon Maximin  and the priests, and said, IYe admire this temple, the work of human hands; these fair ornaments and precious gems, these statues,  that look as if they could move and breathe :admire rather the temple of the universe-the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is therein : admire rather the course of those eternal stars, which  from the beginning of all creation have pursued their course towards the west and returned to us in the east, and never pause for rest.  And  when ye have admired these things, consider the greatness of Him who made them, who is the great God, even the God of the Christians, unto  whom these thy idols are less than the dust of the earth. Miserable are those who place their faith where they can neither find help in the  moment of danger nor comfort in the hour of tribulation! 

Maximin being confounded by her arguments, and yet more by her eloquence, which left him without reply, ordered that fifty of the most learned philosophers and rhetoricians should be collected from all parts of his empire, and promised them exceeding great rewards if they overcame the Christian princess in argument. These philosophers were at first indignant at being assembled for such a futile purpose, esteeming nothing so easy; and they said 'Place her, O Ceasar! before us, that her folly and rashness may be exposed to all the people.' But Catherine, nowise afraid,recommended herself to God, praying that he would not allow the cause of truth to suffer through her feebleness and insufficiency. And she disputed with all these orators and sages, quoting against them the Law and the Prophets, the works of Plato and the books of the Sibyls, until they were utterly confounded, one after another, and struck dumb by her superior learning In the end they confessed them-
selves vanquished and converted to the faith of Christ. The emperor, enraged, ordered them to be consumed by fire; and they went to death willingly, only regretting that they had not been baptized; but Catherine said to them, 'Go, be of good courage, for your blood shall be accounted to you as baptism, and the flames as a crown of glory.' And she did not cease to exhort and comfort them, till they had all perished in the flames.

Then Maximin ordered that she should be dragged to his palace; and being inflamed by her beauty, he endeavoured to corrupt her virtue, but she rejected his offers with scorn ; and being obliged at this time to depart on a warlike expedition, he ordered his creature, Porphyry (called in the French legend 'Le Chevalier Porphire'), to cast her into a dungeon, and starve her to death ; but Catherine prayed to her heavenly bride-room, and the angels descended and ministered to her. And at the end of twelve days the empress and Porphyry visited which as they opened the door, appeared all filled with the dungeon, fragrance and light. Whereupon they fell down at the feet of St. Catherine, and with two hundred of their attendants declared themselves Christians.

When Maximin returned to Alexandria, he was seized with fury. He commanded his wife, the empress, with Porphyry and the other converts, to be put to a cruel death; but being more than ever inflamed by the beauty and wisdom of Catherine, he offered to make her his empress, and mistress of the whole world, if she would repudiate the name of Christ. But she replied with scorn, ‘Shall I forsake my glorious heavenly spouse to unite myself with thee, 
who artbase-born, wicked, and deformed?’ On bearing these words, Maximin roared like a lion in his wrath; and he commanded that they should construct four wheels, armed with sharp points and blades-two revolving in one direction, two in another -so that between them her tender body should be torn into ten thousand pieces. 

And St. Catherine made herself ready to go to this cruel death; and 
as she went, she prayed that the fearful instrument of torment prepared for her might be turned to the glory of God. So they bound her between the wheels, and, at the same moment, fire came down from heaven, sent by the destroying angel of God, who broke the wheels in pieces, and, by the fragments which flewaround, the executioners and three thousand people perished in 
that day. 

Yet for all this the thrice-hardened tyrant repented not, but ordered that Catherine should be carried outside the city, and there, after being scourged with rods, beheaded by the sword: -which was done.  And when she was dead, angels took up her body, and carried it over the desert, and over the Red Sea, till they deposited it on the summit of Mount Sinai. There it rested in a marble sarcophagus, and in the eighth century a monastery was built over her remains, which are revered to this day: but the wicked tyrant, Maximin, being overcome in battle, was slain, and the beasts and birds devoured him; or, as others relate, an inward fire consumed him till he died.

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