Saints for Our Times: Fourth century saint was model of virtue
By Mary Lou Gibson
The “Catherine Wheel” was a hideous instrument of torture designed to tear a person’s body to pieces. Unfortunately, it is the art emblem most associated with St. Catherine of Alexandria. This fourth century maiden was one of the most popular saints in Europe during the Middle Ages even though her life was more legend than fact.
The story of St. Catherine of Alexandria is a romantic tale of heroism and faith. She was a beautiful and intelligent girl who lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Biographer Rodney Castleden writes in “The Book of Saints” that she attracted the attention of Emperor Maxentius when she protested his order demanding sacrifice and worship of idols. He brought in 50 of his most learned philosophers to refute her arguments and convince her of the errors of Christianity.
Not only did she defeat their arguments, but she won them over so that all 50 embraced Christianity. The enraged emperor ordered all 50 to be burned alive. Catherine was thrown into a dungeon without food or water, but not to worry, legend says that doves came to feed her.
The emperor’s wife, Faustina, and her attendant visited Catherine in prison. According to Sarah Gallick in “The Big Book of Women Saints,” Catherine converted them both and another 200 soldiers as well. Maxentius ordered all of them killed and then offered to make Catherine the new empress. She spurned his offer and that’s when he ordered her to be broken on a wheel with spikes.
Catherine was bound to the wheel and as it was about to be rotated, the wheel split and fell apart and a fire fell from Heaven and destroyed it. This firework has come to be known as the Catherine wheel. Maxentius then ordered her beheaded. Tessa Paul reports in the “Completed Illustrated Encyclopedia of Saints” that angels or perhaps monks are said to have lifted her body and carried it to Mount Sinai. There it remains in a monastery built in 527 by the Emperor Justinian.
It is one of the most important monasteries in Christendom and for many years became a place of refuge for monks. The Holy Monastery of St. Catherine is the oldest inhabited monastery in the world.
Author Christine Walsh writes that Catherine’s cult probably originated in oral traditions from the fourth century persecutions of Christians in Alexandria. She may have been a composite drawn from the many stories of women persecuted for their faith.
Her cult gained momentum in the ninth century at Mount Sinai as her story and reputation were carried from the eastern Mediterranean to England by returning crusaders. More than 80 churches in England were dedicated to her and 170 medieval bells still bear her name. Castledon writes that she was the symbol of intelligent and resolute chastity. In the Middle Ages, she was held up to daughters and wives as a model of sexual virtue.
Malcolm Day writes in “A Treasury of Saints” that devotion to St. Catherine reached its highest level in France during the 15th century. It was said that she appeared to Joan of Arc and together with St. Michael had been divinely appointed as Joan’s advisers.
David Farmer reports in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that Catherine’s cult strongly appealed to artists. People prayed to her because her intercession was valued as she was considered to be a bride of Christ, a successful advocate who triumphed over philosophers and a protector of the dying.
She is depicted in murals, panel paintings, manuscripts and embroidery designs usually with the spiked wheel. Farmer lists her earliest mural in a Winchester cathedral in 1225. She is regarded as one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers,” that group of saints notable for answering prayers especially for cures from disease and at the hour of death.
Her feast on Nov. 25 falls immediately before the beginning of Advent during which no weddings could take place during the Middle Ages and for years afterward. So it was a custom for unmarried women of that time to pray to St. Catherine saying,
“A husband, Saint Catherine,
A good one, Saint Catherine,
A handsome one, Saint Catherine,
A rich one, Saint Catherine –
And soon, Saint Catherine!”
In spite of all this attention and devotion, St. Catherine was among the demoted saints in 1969 when Pope Paul VI reorganized the liturgical year and revised the calendar of saints. Fortunately, her feast day was restored for local use in 2001.
She is the patron of craftsmen whose work was based on the wheel. She is also the patron of preachers, philosophers and librarians.