Masolino’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria: Mystic Saint or Female Role Model?
(Published Online, 2007)
In 1860 Jacob Burckhardt in his seminal book The civilization of the Renaissance in Italy argued that Renaissance women ‘stood on a footing of perfect equality with men’ and put forward the idea that the Renaissance represented a period of social, economic and cultural advancement for both men and women. If this was the case then the image of St. Catherine in The Dispute with the Pagan Doctors by Masolino in the church of San Clemente in Rome (Fig. 1) could be representative of how women might behave in public. Arguably the modern debate about women in the Renaissance started in 1977 with Joan Kelly’s question: did women have a Renaissance? The feminist view is that there was no ‘rebirth’ for women, but there was a deterioration of female status and rights judging from literary, visual and documentary evidence. This essay will explore whether Masolino’s St. Catherine, in displaying her abilities as an orator, would have been an appropriate female role model suitable for imitation or whether her status as a virginal mystic saint was a more fitting example for emulation by women.