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Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, also known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel and The Great Martyr Saint Catherine  is a Christian saint and martyr who is claimed to have been a noted scholar in the early 4th century. 1,100 years later, Joan of Arc said that Catherine appeared to her many times.] The Orthodox Church venerates her as a “great martyr”, and in the Catholic Church she is traditionally revered as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

Catherine was the daughter of Costus, a pagan governor of Alexandria. She announced to her parents that she would only marry someone who surpassed her in beauty, intelligence, wealth, and social status. This was an early foreshadowing of her eventual discovery of Christ. “His beauty was more radiant than the shining of the sun, His wisdom governed all creation, His riches were spread throughout all the world.”cath

Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Martyr and Virgin

Born :c. 282 Alexandria, Egypt[1]
Died : c. 307 Alexandria, Egypt[2]
Venerated:  in Roman Catholic Church
                  Eastern Orthodox Churches
                  Oriental Orthodox Churches
                  Anglican Communion
                  Lutheran Churches
Major shrine : Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai
Feast : November 25
           November 24 (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

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 Paris, haberdashers, wheelwrights, Żejtun, Żurrieq, Brgy. Sta. Catalina, San Pablo City, Philippines

Life and legend

Catherine was born in Alexandria and raised a pagan, but converted to Christianity in her late teens. It is said that she visited her contemporary, the Roman Emperor Maxentius, and attempted to convince him of the moral error in persecuting Christians. She succeeded in converting his wife, the Empress, and many pagan philosophers whom the Emperor sent to dispute with her, all of whom were subsequently martyred.Upon the failure of the Emperor to win Catherine over, he ordered her to be put in prison; and when the people who visited her converted, she was condemned to death on the breaking wheel, an instrument of torture. According to legend, the wheel itself broke when she touched it, so she was beheaded.

According to Christian tradition, angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where, in the 6th century, the Eastern Emperor Justinian established Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, the church being built between 548 and 565 in Saint Catherine, Egypt, on the Sinai peninsula. Saint Catherine’s Monastery survives, a famous repository of early Christian art, architecture and illuminated manuscripts that is still open to visiting scholars.

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, because Empress Catherine the Great did not wish to share her patronal feast with the Leavetaking of the feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos. Because she was Catherine the Great’s patron, the Catholic Church of St. Catherine, one of the first Roman Catholic churches built in Russia, was named after Catherine of Alexandria.

Catherine of Alexandria, by Carlo Crivelli

Catherine of Alexandria, by Carlo Crivelli

Medieval cult

St. Catherine was one of the most influential saints in the religious culture of the late middle ages, and arguably considered the most important of the virgin-martyrs. Her power as an intercessor was renowned, and firmly established in most versions of her legend, in which she specifically entreats God at the moment of her death to answer the prayers of those who 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 emitting from her body. There are a handful of pilgrimage narratives that chronicle the journey to Mount Sinai, most notably those of John Mandeville and Friar Felix Fabri 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. Other shrines were the focus of generally local pilgrimage, many of which are only identified by brief mentions to them in various texts, rather than by physical evidence.

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. Among these, St. Catherine in particular was used as an exemplar for women, a status which at times superseded her intercessory role. 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.” From the early 14th century the Mystic marriage of Saint Catherine first appears in hagiographical literature and, soon after, in art

History and veneration

Historians such as Harold Thayler Davis believe that Catherine (‘the pure one’) may not have existed and that she was more an ideal exemplary figure than a historical one. She did certainly form an exemplary counterpart to the pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria in the medieval mindset;and it has been suggested that she was invented specifically for that purpose. Like Hypatia, she is said to have been highly learned (in philosophy and theology), very beautiful, sexually pure, and to have been brutally murdered for publicly stating her beliefs. Catherine is placed 105 years before Hypatia’s death, although the first records mentioning her are much later.

Because of the fabulous character of the account of her martyrdom and the lack of reliable documentation, the Roman Catholic Church in 1969 removed her feast day from the General Roman Calendar. But she continued to be commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on November 25. In 2002, her feast was restored to the General Roman Calendar as an optional memorial.

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

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

The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia describes the historical importance of the belief in her as follows:

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, etc. In many places her feast was celebrated with the utmost solemnity, servile work being suppressed and the devotions being 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 seventeenth 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, received additional éclat in France in the beginning of the fifteenth 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.

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. St Catherine is called upon for relief and assistance during childbirth. 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.

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