By Sandra Alvarez
Saint Catherine of Alexandria and her wheel have been well recognized symbols since the beginning of the Middle Ages. Although she was martyred in the 4th century, her popularity has endured through the centuries. In modern times, she has a band and fireworks named after her, and the term to “break the wheel” has come to denote exhaustion or pain. She is one of the most recognized and revered medieval saints. Here are 10 interesting tidbits about Saint Catherine:
1. Painful depictions
Saint Catherine is shown often with a martyr’s palm and always with the wheel on which she was tortured. Medieval saints were often depicted with the instrument of their torture or suffering their martyrdom.
2. Was no pauper
Saint Catherine was the daughter of Constus, an Alexandrian governor. She was purportedly raised a princess, and was well educated.
3. Patron saint of wheelwrights
Medieval Christians called upon specific saints for specific reasons, like a good harvest, to ease childbirth or for safe travels. Saint Catherine was so popular in Medieval and Early Modern Europe because she was venerated by people from all walks of life; aristocratic women (because she was a princess), young women – especially nuns (because she died a virgin and was a bride of Christ), wheelwrights, millers, preachers, philosophers and scholars because of her intelligence in debate against the Pagan philosophers.
4. Had good debating skills
Saint Catherine was extremely intelligent. She was challenged to a religious debate by Pagan philosophers and managed to convert them all to Christianity, foiling the Roman Emperor, Maxentius’ (278 – October 28, 312 AD) plan to have them refute her Christian beliefs. Here she is shown reading from a book on a lectern to demonstrate her abilities as a scholar.
5. How she died
Although Saint Catherine is always depicted with the wheel, that’s not how she actually died. She called upon God to intercede as she was about to be publicly tortured and the wheel exploded at her touch. The Roman Emperor Maxentius, who Catherine had scorned when he proposed marriage, eventually had her beheaded.
6. Perhaps she didn’t exist
Saint Catherine was an early 4th century saint but there are no accounts of her life until the 9th or 10th century. Many scholars believe she never existed and her martyrdom was an allegory, or a story meant for edification and nothing more. Her Feast Day, November 25th, was removed by the Vatican from the liturgical calendar in 1969, however, it was reinstated as an optional memorial day in 2002.
7. Mount Sinai
According to medieval accounts, Saint Catherine’s body rested in a monastery on Mount Sinai. She was carried there by angels after her martyrdom. Her tomb supposedly released an oil with healing properties that had many pilgrims flocking there during the Middle Ages.
Catherine was one of the most popular saints in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages. There were many accounts written of her life and several written about pilgrimage to her tomb. Dominican Felix Fabri (Faber) (1441-1502), described his journey to Mount Sinai to visit Saint Catherine in one of his pilgrimage accounts, as did John Mandeville, and a 13th century pilgrim only known as Magister Thietmar, who wrote an account of visiting Saint Catherine’s tomb in 1217.
9. A Holy Helper
Saint Catherine is ranked among “The Fourteen Holy Helpers”. These were the saints in the Middles Ages who were believed to be the best at interceding on behalf of the person requesting aid. They were especially invoked against the Black Death. Saint Catherine was often depicted in conjunction with two other Virgin saints, Saint Barbara and Saint Margaret. By the Late Middle Ages, Saint Catherine’s reputation as an intercessor was well known.
Saint Joan of Arc was said to have heard Saint Catherine’s voice speaking to her to support Charles VII during the Hundred Year’s War. She claimed Saint Catherine was one of her divine advisers.
See also: How Many Medieval Saints Are There?