At Alexandria, St. Catherine, Virgin and Martyr. During the reign of the Emperor Maximinus she confessed the Christian faith, so she was cast into prison, was beaten continually with whips, and finally achieved martyrdom by decapitation. – Roman Martyrology for November 25
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:
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 picture Christ as a baby on his mother's lap (example). The original for this device may be a fresco in Montmorillon from about 1200 in which the Christ Child reaches out from his mother's lap to place a crown on St. Catherine's head.
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). One fresco in Venice's Ducal Palace even puts the Doge in the picture.
In portraits St. Catherine's most common attribute is a spiked wheel from the ruined engine. Also common are the sword used in the beheading, and sometimes a book (example). In this painting from the 16th century the attribute is the ring she received from Jesus. An alabaster relief from Spain opts instead to show her enthroned and treading the head of Maxentius. Throughout the high Middle Ages and Renaissance she is among the saints most likely to be included in group portraits with the Virgin and Child (example) and with other virgin martyrs such as Margaret (example), Barbara (example), or Agnes (example). The palm of martyrdom, as in the second picture on the right, is of course common in these portraits.
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 in 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 "Holy Helpers" to whom people looked for assistance when in need.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2015-10-15, 2016-09-12,30, 2016-11-30, 2018-01-29.