Catherine of Alexandria

Catherine of Alexandria, or Katherine of Alexandria, also known as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Catherine of the Wheel and The Great Martyr Saint Catherine (Coptic: Ϯⲁⲅⲓⲁ Ⲕⲁⲧⲧⲣⲓⲛ; Greek: ἡ Ἁγία Αἰκατερίνη ἡ Μεγαλομάρτυς "Holy Catherine the Great Martyr"; Latin: Catharina Alexandrina), is, according to tradition, a Christian saint and virgin, who was martyred in the early 4th century at the hands of the emperor Maxentius. According to her hagiography, she was both a princess and a noted scholar who became a Christian around the age of 14, converted hundreds of people to Christianity and was martyred around the age of 18. More than 1,100 years after Catherine's martyrdom, Joan of Arc identified her as one of the saints who appeared to and counselled her.[4]


Catherine of Alexandria
Bernardino Luini – Portrait of Catherine of Alexandria
(National Art Museum of Azerbaijan)
Martyr and Virgin
Bornc. 287
Alexandria, Roman Egypt[1]
Diedc. 305 (aged 1718)
Alexandria, Egypt
Venerated inEastern Orthodoxy
Oriental Orthodoxy
Anglican Communion
Major shrineSaint Catherine's Monastery
  • 25 November
  • 7 December (24 November Julian Calendar) (Orthodox churches of Russian background)
  • 29 Hathor (Coptic Orthodox church)[2]
Attributesthe "breaking wheel"; sword; with a crown at her feet; hailstones; bridal veil and ring; dove; scourge; book; woman arguing with pagan philosophers[3] decapitation
PatronageUnmarried 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 Oviedo; University of Paris; haberdashers; wheelwrights; Żejtun, Malta; Żurrieq, Malta; Katerini, Greece; Grude, Bosnia and Herzegovina; Pagbilao, Quezon, Philippines; Gerona, Tarlac, Philippines; Carcar City, Cebu, Philippines; Porac, Pampanga, Arayat, Pampanga, Philippines; Dumaguete City, Philippines; Santa Catalina, Negros Oriental, Philippines; Santa Catalina, Ilocos Sur, Philippines; Santa, Ilocos Sur, Philippines; Leon, Iloilo, Philippines; Tayum, Abra, Philippines; Diocese of Dumaguete, Negros Oriental, Philippines; University of Santo Tomas; Diocesan Shrine and Parish of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Bagac, Bataan, Philippines

The Eastern Orthodox Church venerates her as a Great Martyr and celebrates her feast day on 24 or 25 November, depending on the regional tradition. In Catholicism, Catherine is traditionally revered as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers and she is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on 25 November.[5] Her feast was removed from the General Roman Calendar[6] in 1969, but restored in 2002 as an optional memorial.

Some modern scholars consider that the legend of Catherine was probably based on the life and murder of the virgin Saint Dorothea of Alexandria and the Greek philosopher Hypatia, with reversed role of a Christian and Neo-Platonist in the case of the latter.[7][8][9]


According to the traditional narrative, Catherine was the daughter of Constus, the governor of Alexandria during the reign of the emperor Maximian (286–305).[10] From a young age she devoted herself to study. A vision of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus persuaded her to become a Christian. When the persecutions began under Maxentius, she went to the emperor and rebuked him for his cruelty. The emperor summoned 50 of the best pagan philosophers and orators to dispute with her, hoping that they would refute her pro-Christian arguments, but Catherine won the debate. Several of her adversaries, conquered by her eloquence, declared themselves Christians and were at once put to death.[11]

Torture and martyrdom

Icon of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with scenes from her martyrdom

Catherine was then scourged and imprisoned. She was scourged so cruelly and for so long that her whole body was covered with wounds, from which the blood flowed in streams. The spectators wept with pity, but Catherine stood with her eyes raised to heaven, without giving a sign of suffering or fear. Maxentius ordered her to be imprisoned without food, so she would starve to death. During the confinement, angels tended her wounds with salve. Catherine was fed daily by a dove from Heaven and Christ also visited her, encouraging her to fight bravely, and promised her the crown of everlasting glory.

During her imprisonment more than 200 people came to see her, including Maxentius' wife, Valeria Maximilla; all converted to Christianity and were subsequently martyred.[12] Twelve days later, when the dungeon was opened, a bright light and fragrant perfume filled it and Catherine came forth even more radiant and beautiful.

Upon the failure of Maxentius to make Catherine yield by way of torture, he tried to win the beautiful and wise princess over by proposing marriage. Catherine refused, declaring that her spouse was Jesus Christ, to whom she had consecrated her virginity.

The furious emperor condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but, at her touch, it shattered.[11] Maxentius ordered her to be beheaded. Catherine herself ordered the execution to commence. A milk-like substance rather than blood flowed from her neck.[13]


In the 6th century, the Eastern Emperor Justinian had established what is now Saint Catherine's Monastery in Egypt (which is in fact dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ). Countless people make the pilgrimage to the Monastery to receive miracle healing from Catherine.[14]


Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi
Pietro Aretino, Vita di santa Caterina vergine e martire, 1636.

Donald Attwater dismisses what he calls the "legend" of Saint Catherine, arguing for a lack of any "positive evidence that she ever existed outside the mind of some Greek writer who first composed what he intended to be simply an edifying romance."[15] Harold Davis writes that "assiduous research has failed to identify Catherine with any historical personage".[16][17]

Anna Brownell Jameson was the first to argue that the life of Catherine was confused with that of the slightly later Neo-Platonist philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria (d. 415).[18] Hypatia was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, who was murdered by a Christian mob after being accused of exacerbating a conflict between two prominent figures in Alexandria, the governor, Orestes, and the bishop, Cyril.[19][20] The idea that Catherine's life was either based on or became confused with the life of the pagan Hypatia has become a popular theory among modern scholars since. However, while Christine Walsh accepts the many parallels between Catherine and Hypatia, she does not believe there is any evidence for or against the idea that Catherine was created based on Hypatia. [18][8][21]

Sometimes cited as a possible inspiration of Catherine, the writer Eusebius wrote, around the year 320, that the Emperor Maximinus had ordered a young Christian woman to come to his palace to become his mistress, and when she refused he had her punished by having her banished and her estates confiscated.[22] Although Eusebius did not name the woman, she had been identified with Dorothea of Alexandria.

The earliest surviving account of Catherine's life comes around 600 years after the traditional date of her martyrdom, in the Menologium, a document compiled for Emperor Basil II (976), although the alleged rediscovery of her relics at Saint Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai was about 800,[23] and presumably implies an existing cult at that date (though the common name of the monastery developed after the discovery).

In her book The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe, Christine Walsh discusses "the historical Katherine":

As we have seen, the cult of St Katherine of Alexandria probably originated in oral traditions from the 4th-century Diocletianic Persecutions of Christians in Alexandria. There is no evidence that Katherine herself was a historical figure and she may well have been a composite drawn from memories of women persecuted for their faith. Many aspects of her Passio are clearly legendary and conform to well-known hagiographical topoi.

Walsh 2007, p. 143


Her name appears in Greek as Αικατερίνη (Aikaterínē) or ‘Εκατερίνη (Hekaterínē). The etymology is debated: it could derive from ἑκάτερος (hekáteros) "each of two"; it could derive from the name of the goddess Hecate; it could be related to Greek αἰκία (aikía) "insult, outrage, suffering, torture"; or it could be from a Coptic name meaning "my consecration of your name". In the early Christian era it became associated with Greek καθαρός (katharós) "pure", and the Latin spelling was changed from Katerina to Katharina to reflect this. Reflecting this confusion, Rufinus states that her first name was Dorothea (Greek: Δωροθέα) and that at her christening she acquired the name Aikaterina (Αικατερίνα), a name that signifies her pure, clean and uncontaminated nature (from Greek αιέν καθαρινά 'ever clean’).

Medieval cult

Catherine of Alexandria, by Carlo Crivelli

Catherine was one of the most important saints in the religious culture of the late Middle Ages and arguably considered the most important of the virgin martyrs, a group including Agnes of Rome, Margaret of Antioch, Barbara, Lucia of Syracuse, Valerie of Limoges and many others. Her power as an intercessor was renowned and firmly established in most versions of her hagiography, in which she specifically entreats Christ at the moment of her death to answer the prayers of those who remember her martyrdom and invoke her name.

The development of her medieval cult was spurred by the alleged rediscovery of her body around the year 800 (about 500 years after her death) at Mount Sinai, supposedly with hair still growing and a constant stream of healing oil issuing from her body.[23] There are several pilgrimage narratives that chronicle the journey to Mount Sinai, most notably those of John Mandeville and Friar Felix Fabri.[24] However, while the monastery at Mount Sinai was the best-known site of Catherine pilgrimage, it 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, and was accompanied by many scattered shrines and altars dedicated to Catherine 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.[25][26] Other shrines, such as St. Catherine's Hill, Hampshire were the focus of generally local pilgrimage, many of which are only identified by brief mentions in various texts, rather than by physical evidence.[27]

St. Catharine's College, Cambridge was founded on St Catharine’s Day (25 November) 1473 by Robert Woodlark (the then-provost of King's College Cambridge) who sought to create a small community of scholars who would study exclusively theology and philosophy. Wodelarke may have chosen the name in homage to Catherine of Valois, mother of Henry VI of England, although it is more likely that it was named as part of the Renaissance cult of Saint Catherine, who was a patron saint of learning. At any rate the college was ready for habitation and formally founded on Saint Catherine’s Day, 1473.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria Wood Statue at the Korppoo Church in Finland.

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.[28][29][30] Among these, St Catherine in particular was used as an exemplar for women, a status which at times superseded her intercessory role.[31] 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."[32][33][34] From the early 14th century the mystic marriage of Saint Catherine first appears in hagiographical literature and, soon after, in art. In the Western church the popularity of her cult began to reduce in the 18th century.[35]


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, Polish, Serbian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches celebrate it on 24 November. The exact origin of this tradition is not known. In 11th-century Kyivan-Rus, the feast day was celebrated on 25 November. Dimitry of Rostov in his Kniga zhyttia sviatykh (Book of the Lives of the Saints), T.1 (1689) places the date of celebration on 24 November. A story that Empress Catherine the Great did not wish to share her patronal feast with the Leavetaking of the feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos and hence changed the date is not supported by historical evidence. One of the first Roman Catholic churches to be built in Russia, the Catholic Church of St. Catherine, was named after Catherine of Alexandria because she was Catherine the Great's patron. A footnote to the entry for 25 November in The Synaxarion compiled by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra states: "Until the 16th century, the memory of St Catherine was observed on 24 Nov. According to a note by Bartholomew of Koutloumousiou inserted in the Menaion, the Fathers of Sinai transferred the date to 25 Nov. in order that the feast might be kept with greater solemnity."

The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia describes her historical importance:

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.

In many places her feast was celebrated with the utmost solemnity, servile work being suppressed and the devotions 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 17th century, the splendour of its ceremonial eclipsing that of the feasts of some of the apostles. Many chapels were placed under her patronage, and nearly all churches had a statue of her, representing her according to medieval iconography with a wheel, her instrument of torture.

In France, some unwed women who have attained the age of 25 wear richly decorated bonnets on the day of her feast. This custom gave rise to the French idiom coiffer Sainte-Catherine ('don St. Catherine's bonnet'), to describe an unmarried woman between the ages of 25 and 30.[36]

In memory of her sacrifice in some homes, Egyptian and other Middle Eastern foods are offered for her feast, such as hummus or tabbouleh salads. Favorites also are melons cut into circles with sherbet "hubs", or cookies shaped as spiked wheels with icing.

Meanwhile, owing to several circumstances in his life, Nicholas of Myra was considered the patron of young bachelors and students, and 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 Catherine which assumed such vast proportions in Europe after the Crusades,[14] received additional éclat in France in the beginning of the 15th century, when it was rumoured that she had spoken to Joan of Arc and, together with Margaret of Antioch, had been divinely appointed Joan's adviser.[11]

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

Devotion to Catherine remains strong amongst Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. With the relative ease of travel in the modern age, pilgrimages to Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai have increased. Pilgrims to the monastery are given a ring that has been placed on the relics of the saint as an evlogia (blessing) in remembrance of their visit.

Catherine of Alexandria is remembered in the Church of England with a commemoration on 25 November.[37]


The pyrotechnic Catherine wheel, which rotates with sparks flying off in all directions, took its name from the saint's wheel of martyrdom.[22]

In art

Scenes from the Life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Germany, ca. 15th century, Walters Art Museum
Saint Catherine in the former coat of armas of the Kaarina town

Countless images of Saint Catherine are depicted in art, especially in the late Middle Ages, which is also the time that the account of Saint Catherine's Mystical Marriage makes its first literary appearance. She can usually be easily recognised as she is richly dressed and crowned, as befits her rank as a princess, and often holds or stands next to a segment of her wheel as an attribute. She also often carries either a martyr's palm or the sword with which she was actually executed. She often has long unbound blonde or reddish hair (unbound as she is unmarried). The vision of Saint Catherine of Alexandria usually shows the Infant Christ, held by the Virgin, placing a ring (one of her attributes) on her finger, following some literary accounts, although in the version in the Golden Legend he appears to be adult, and the marriage takes place among a great crowd of angels and "all the celestial court",[38] and these may also be shown.

She is very frequently shown attending on the Virgin and Child, and is usually prominent in scenes of the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines, showing a group of virgin saints surrounding the Virgin and Child. Notable later paintings of Catherine include single figures by Raphael in the National Gallery, and by Caravaggio (in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid).

Contemporary media

  • The opening scene of television series The Sopranos episode 38, "Amour Fou", features mob wife Carmela Soprano and her daughter Meadow Soprano in an art gallery, where (among other topics) they discuss Jusepe de Ribera's painting: The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria.
  • A movie about Catherine, called Decline of an Empire, began production in January 2010 and was released in 2014.[39]

See also

  • Catharina, lunar crater named after Saint Catherine
  • Catherinettes, a French term for girls unmarried at 25
  • St. Catharines, Ontario, a Canadian city named in her honour
  • Kaarina, a city in Finland named after Saint Catherine
  • List of Christian women of the patristic age
  • Santa Catalina Island, California Channel Island named after Saint Catherine
  • Santa Catalina Mountains, a prominent mountain range north of Tucson, Arizona, United States, named after Saint Catherine in 1697
  • Santa Catarina, one of the three states in southern Brazil
  • Se Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Catherine
  • St Catharine's College, Cambridge University
  • St Catherine's College, Oxford University
  • St. Catherine University, women's college in Saint Paul, MN
  • St. Catherine's Cathedral, Kherson, dedicated to Saint Catherine, the original name of City of Kherson was to 'the Glory of Catherine'
  • St. Catherine's Day
  • St. Catherine's School, K-12 in Richmond, VA
  • St Helen and St Katharine, girls' school in Oxfordshire, England, which celebrates "St. Katharine's Day" in November
  • Adest dies triumphalis, a sequence in 9 voices in honour of Saint Catherine, by Francisco Valls
  • The Catherine Wheel (album), David Byrne's musical score commissioned by Twyla Tharp for her dance project
  • St. Catharine's School for Girls (Kwun Tong), girls' school in Hong Kong
  • Saint Catherine of Alexandria, patron saint archive



  1. "Holy Great Martyr Katherine". Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Archived from the original on 26 December 2014. Retrieved 11 December 2014.
  2. "الأقباط متحدون | سيرة القديسة الشهيدة كاترين الإسكندرانية عيد إستشهادها ( 29 هاتور – 8 ديسمبر )" [Biography of the martyr Saint Catherine of Alexandria (29 Hator - 8 December)] (in Arabic).
  3. "Liturgical Year : This Item Currently Unavailable".
  4. Williard Trask, Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words (Turtle Point Press, 1996), 99
  5. Martyrologium Romanum (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001 ISBN 88-209-7210-7)
  6. Calendarium Romanum (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969), p. 147
  7. Walsh 2007, pp. 3–26.
  8. Deakin 2007, pp. 135, 202.
  9. Maria Dzielska: Hypatia of Alexandria, Cambridge (Massachusetts) 1995, p. 21; Christian Lacombrade: Hypatia. In: Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Bd. 16, Stuttgart 1994, Sp. 956–967, here: 966; Gustave Bardy: Catherine d’Alexandrie. In: Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, Bd. 11, Paris 1949, Sp. 1503–1505, here: 1504.
  10. "Great Martyr Catherine of Alexandria".
  11. Clugnet 1908.
  12. "Saint Catherine of Alexandria". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 29 October 2010.
  13. Morton 1841, p. 133.
  14. Foley & McCloskey 2009.
  15. de Azevedo 2005, p. 324.
  16. Harold Thayer Davis, Alexandria: The Golden City (Principia Press of Illinois, 1957), p 441
  17. Allen 1997, pp. 214–217.
  18. Walsh 2007, p. 10.
  19. Watts 2006, pp. 197–198.
  20. Deakin 1994, pp. 234–243.
  21. Maria Dzielska: Hypatia of Alexandria, Cambridge (Massachusetts) 1995, p. 21; Christian Lacombrade: Hypatia. In: Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Bd. 16, Stuttgart 1994, Sp. 956–967, here: 966; Gustave Bardy: Catherine d’Alexandrie. In: Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, Bd. 11, Paris 1949, Sp. 1503–1505, here: 1504.
  22. "Catherine of Alexandria, Lives of Saints". John J. Crawley & Co., Inc. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
  23. S. R. T. O d'Ardeene and E. J. Dobson, Seinte Katerine: Re-Edited from MS Bodley 34 and other Manuscripts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), xiv.
  24. John Mandeville, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1964); Felix Fabri, The Wanderings of Felix Fabri (New York: AMS Press, 1971), 217.
  25. Walsh 2003, p. 31.
  26. Lewis 2003, p. 44.
  27. Lewis 2003, pp. 49–51.
  28. Bugge 2012, p. 132.
  29. Lewis 2000, p. 229.
  30. Duffy 1992, p. 174.
  31. Lewis 1999.
  32. de Pizan 2003, p. 146.
  33. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies trans. by Rosalind Brown-Grant (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 203
  34. Barnhouse 2006, pp. 126, 193.
  35. Allen 1997, p. 217.
  36. "Coiffer sainte Catherine". La France pittoresque (in French). 24 November 2016.
  37. "The Calendar". The Church of England. Retrieved 8 April 2021.
  38. Caxton 1900, p. 1.
  39. Fall of an Empire: The Story of Katherine of Alexandria (2014) at IMDb


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