A Visual Trope in Medieval Christian Art
The image of St. Catherine of Alexandria at right is an example of a common gambit in medieval images of martyrs. The authority figure who ordered the execution of the saint is pictured vanquished beneath the martyr's feet. This affirms that martyrdom is a victory – over death, over self, and over the worldly interests that the persecutor represents.
It is possible that the trope could have a source in classical statuary. The examples referenced here are all from the late medieval and later periods, when great numbers of classical works were being unearthed in Rome and elsewhere. Among these are statues of Nemesis standing with her foot on an adversary, as in the second picture at right. (Nemesis's wheel is a common feature of her classical statues. Whether it is also related to St. Catherine's wheel is something I cannot ascertain. I have found no scholarly work on the origins of Catherine's story that suggests such a relationship.)
St. Barbara is also sometimes pictured treading on the judge who condemned her. Images of St. Thomas Aquinas adapt this trope to put an Arab philosopher beneath his feet, because of the saint's refutation of theological challenges to the Christian faith.
In a related device, it will be a beast or monster beneath the saint's feet. The saints remembered on October 7, the day of the victory over the Turks at Lepanto, are pictured standing on a three-headed beast representing the Turkish commanders. St. Margaret of Antioch, who broke out of a demon that had taken the form of a dragon, is often pictured standing on the dragon, as is St. Bartholomew in this statue. In the Lateran Basilica St. Philip stands on the dragon that he drove out of Scythia. For St. Thecla, the beast beneath her feet is the lion that the pagans loosed on her.
Prepared in 2020 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.