St. Catherine

"I spoke of Thy testimonies before kings, and I was not ashamed. I meditated on Thy commandments, which I loved." (Psalms 119:46-47) Introit for the Feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, November 25

Image: Wood engraving (19th century) after painting by Lucas van Leyden

Although her existence is historically unverifiable, Catherine of Alexandria was one of the most popular saints in the later part of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Philosophers honored her as their patroness, and in the Renaissance, she was often set as a female counterpart to St. Jerome, as the patron of rhetoricians and lawyers. Born a nobleman's daughter (some accounts name a King Costus) she was instructed in the liberal arts in one of the largest and most culturally sophisticated cities in the Roman empire. She was seen to have a special relationship with Christ, often described as a mystical marriage. By the thirteenth century, at least, her story began to be elaborated in a variety of dramatic renderings. See the De passione S. Katherine of 1200-1220 (in Anchorite Spirituality, trans. Ann Savage and Nicholas Watson, New York, Paulist Press, 1991), the late thirteenth-century Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, and Osbern Bokenham A Legend of Holy Women of 1447 (trans. Shiela Delany, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).
   

During the persecution of a pagan emperor, often identified as Maximinus (305-313) ruler of the Eastern part of the Roman empire, citizens were ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Catherine refused, rebuking the emperor for his idolatry and arguing with his counselors over points of philosophy and faith. The pagan scholars, after their debate with Catherine, were so persuaded by her arguments that they converted. Maximinus then had them executed.
   

In most of the stories, her great beauty as well as learning become points of contention. Maximinus not only quakes before her wisdom, but is ravished by her beauty and determines that she will become his wife. Catherine clearly states that she will have no husband other than her mystical spouse, Christ. In anger over his failure to convert her by reason, or to win her to him through marriage, Maximinus's love turns to hatred, and he orders her tortured on a spiked wheel. Following standard confrontational narratives for saints lives, Catherinešs righteousness is vindicated when an angel descends to destroy the wheel before it can harm her. Finally she is beheaded, and a voice from heaven speaks "Come My beloved, My spouse, Behold the door of heaven is open to thee" (Golden Legend). Her body was believed to have been transported to Mt. Sinai, site since Constantine's time of a renowned monastery dedicated to St. Catherine.

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