Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr (Died 310?): The Iconography

The oldest known version of St. Catherine's passion was composed in the 10th century in Greek by Symeon Metaphrastes. Latin and western vernacular versions of the story, regardless of their length, retain all the episodes in Symeon's work in the order he presented them. Until the 14th century, longer works mostly extend the dialogues in the original and add dramatic touches or rationalizing details.1

Later works add episodes to the beginning that culminate in the "Mystical Marriage" discussed below.

Symeon's passion and its western derivatives follow this order of narrative:
  1. In Alexandria,Catherine, an erudite virgin of royal lineage, objects to the Emperor Maxentius' calling for a grand festival in honor of the gods. A Tintoretto of this scene is available only from a commercial dealer. One portrait in the Getty alludes to Catherine's erudition by showing her reading a book and another uses a book as an attribute. Her royal lineage leads the artists almost invariably to give her a crown, as at left.

  2. Maxentius summons fifty pagan philosophers to debate Catherine (image). But she prays for God's assistance, and the philosophers lose the debate, convert to Christianity, and are martyred in what Catherine assures them is a Baptism by Fire. At Notre-Dame de Morillon in France the earliest known image of St. Catherine's story shows the martyrdom of the philosophers inside a structure shaped like a baptismal font.

  3. Maxentius promises that Catherine can be his co-ruler if she recants, but she refuses, saying she is a bride of Christ.

  4. Maxentius has her tortured and imprisoned for twelve days (forty in Capgrave). In the western versions angels tend her wounds with salve (image). Wishing to be a Christian like Catherine, the Emperor's wife visits her in prison, accompanied by the military officer Porphyry (image). During the confinement, Catherine is fed daily by a dove from Heaven (image); Christ also visits in person to encourage her.

  5. After the twelve days Maxentius offers Catherine her life if she recants, death if she persists in error. She refuses, so he has an engine with spiked wheels built to frighten her into submission. She prays and an angel destroys the engine. The flying fragments kill many pagan bystanders (image). The Golden Legend has a very confusing account of the engine's construction and may be the cause of some very odd visualizations in the art (example).

  6. Maxentius' wife objects to his behavior, so he has her tortured and put to death.

  7. Porphyry and his 200 men confess the faith and are also martyred.

  8. Again refusing Maxentius' offer, Catherine is condemned to death. Women follow weeping behind her to the place of execution, but she says they should rejoice for her and weep for themselves.2

  9. She prays for those who will remember her when they pray, and then she is beheaded (image). Three miracles are noted: Milk flows from her trunk when she is beheaded, angels carry her body to Mt. Sinai (image), and a healing oil flows from her sarcophagus.
When Maxentius offers Catherine co-rulership she replies
"I have become a bride of Christ" in Symeon and "Christ has adopted me as his bride" in the Passio."3 Later versions take this hint and work it up into an extended prelude in which the still-pagan Catherine is taken in a vision to Christ, who gives her a ring and takes her as his bride.

This "Mystical Marriage" was already in place in the 13th-century English Legend of St. Katherine, though it was still unknown to Voragine in 1260 when he compiled the Golden Legend. After the 13th century it became a common subject for painting.

The question facing artists of the time was how to handle the implications of sexual intimacy in such a subject.
One early example from the 14th century deals with the problem by putting Jesus and Catherine at arms' length on the left and right of the scene. Subsequent images follow the Montmorillon example of picturing Christ as a baby on his mother's lap (example).


A wedding is a social event, so in Mystical Marriage images other popular saints are also in attendance
(example), especially St. John the Baptist and St. Anthony Abbot (example).

Portraits

Portraits of the saint usually show her with a spiked
wheel from the ruined engine, the sword used to behead her, and the palm branch of martyrdom (example).

The great popularity of St. Catherine portraits may be due to her final prayer before the execution. In Symeon, she merely asks that Christ will grant people "petitions that are profitable to them" when they call on his name through her. But the Passio she prays that he will grant the requests of those in need who invoke her against pestilence, famine, illness, and calamities and for healthy air and a fruitful harvest.
Later versions of the prayer keep repeating this list through the rest of the Middle Ages, and by the 14th century Catherine has become a Nothelfer, one of the fourteen saints to whom people looked for assistance when in need.

Feast day: November 25, no longer observed in the Roman Catholic Church

At left, from Anthony Vivarini's 1449 Polyptych of the Virgin and Child

Other images of the passion:

The wheeled engine, 15th-century painting
Decapitation with the Trinity

Decapitation

Other images of the Mystical Marriage:
Besozzo, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, St.
                    John the Baptist, St. Anthony Abbot, 1420Besozzo's painting of the scene
Early 16th century
Correggio, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine,
                    1520With young St. John the Baptist
With the Doge, 1581
Other portraits:
Carpaccio, St. Catherine of Alexandria
                          and St. Veneranda, 1500Tempera painting,  1500
High relief, 15th century
Among other saints:
A 1486 fresco in Piedmont
Painting of the Madonna and Child with Saints, 1520

In a Veronese Sacra Conversazione, 1540-43
With John the Baptist in a 16th-century Crucifixion triptych
In an Adoration of the Shepherds, 1599
With the Virgin Lactans
Painting from Assisi, with the Madonna and Child
Hagiography: See the note below.

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1Symeon Metaphrastes, Vita Sanctorum in Migne, Patrologiae Grecae Cursus Completus CXVI 275-302.  Also studied for this page were the following:
2The Golden Legend omits the weeping women; the 11th-century Passio places them in the wheel episode.

3
When Catherine dies Christ also echoes the bridegroom's words in the Song of Solomon: "Come, my beloved, lo the gates of blessedness have opened for you." See the Song of Solomon 2:10, 4:8, 5:1.