Donato and Gregorio D'Arezzo, Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Twelve Scenes from Her Life

Circa 1330
Tempera and gold leaf on panel
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

In this kind of altarpiece, developed in the 13th century, a standing figure of the saint is flanked by two or four columns of images illustrating his or her career. The gold ground is typical of the 14th century. In this example the central figure is St. Catherine of Alexandria. Other than the generic palm branch signifying a martyr the portrait does not include the usual attributes of this saint.

The top four panels on the left side illustrate a preliminary account that appeared later in the Catherine legends and that give her a sort of back story. In the top panel on the far left, Catherine's mother takes her to a hermit who gives her an image of the Madonna and Child. In the panel below the mother gives alms to the hermit, who blesses the child. In the second panel at the top, after meditating on the painting Catherine has a vision of the actual Mary and her Child. Below that, she has a second vision: The Christ Child spiritually "marries" her, putting her a ring on her finger. This is the first panel in which she has a halo.

The bottom two panels on the left start the core narrative. On the left, the Emperor Maxentius presides as she defends the Christian faith against fifty philosophers. Because she manages to convince and convert them Maxentius orders their death by fire, which we see in the next panel.

The story continues in the panels on the right. In the top left she is whipped and put in prison, where a dove brings her food. Top right, she is visited by the Empress and an officer named Porphyry, who wish to become Christians. The middle panels depict Christ's visit to the saint in prison (left) and the episode of the wheel (right).

Finally, the bottom panels show the martyrdoms of the Empress and Porphyry on the left and of Catherine herself on the right. Angels carry the souls of the two converts up to Heaven and the body of St. Catherine to Mount Sinai.

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View large-scale photographs of each of the narrative panels:

Left side:

  1. The first hermit panel
  2. The second hermit panel
  3. Catherine's first vision of the Madonna and Child
  4. Her second vision: the "Mystic Marriage"
  5. She converts the philosophers
  6. The philosophers are put to death
Right side:
  1. Catherine is whipped and imprisoned
  2. The Empress visits Catherine in prison
  3. Christ visits Catherine in prison
  4. Angels destroy the torture wheel
  5. Martyrdom of Porphyry and the Empress
  6. Martyrdom of Catherine

Read more about images of St. Catherine.

Photographed at the site by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.