5/04/2009

Religious woman of the week - Catherine of Alexandria

Name: Catherine of Alexandria
Function: Saint
Sphere of influence: Philosophers, students, preachers, libraries, and a lot of other things
Place of origin: Alexandria, Egypt

The actual existence of the person Catherine of Alexandria is debated. There does not exist any hagiography dated to any time near when she was supposed to have lived (late 3rd century-early 4th century), all mentions of her and her legend are from several centuries later. It has been suggested that she was created as a counterpart to the pagan Hypatia, also from Alexandria, and also a highly intelligent woman who debated with scholars and learned men, and who also suffered a gruesome death – but whose existence is not questioned.

According to legend Catherine was a good Christian girl, who was greatly upset with the Roman emperor Maxentius and his persecutions of Christians. To prove that she was right and he was wrong she entered a debate on the greatness of the Christian faith with a whole group of wise, but pagan, men. Of course she converted each and every one of them – and the wife of Maxentius, the empress Valeria Maximilla. The emperor did not like that and put Catherine in prison, but she still continued to convert people there, people who came to visit her. Then it was ordered she was to be put to death with a wheel – but the wheel splintered, and in the end she was beheaded.

Her importance grew after her death. She was regarded as one of “fourteen holy helpers”, that is the fourteen saints who could give the most help from heaven. And according to one legend, an angel carried her body to mount Sinai, where the emperor Justinian built a church and a monastery in her honour. The monastery still exists. But because of the nature of her legend, and the questionability of its reliability, the Catholic church chose in 1969 to remove her fest from the list of feasts to be universally celebrated by the church – but she remained an officially recognized Catholic saint (just as she is a saint in the eastern orthodox church). In 2002 her feast was kind of restored, the church saying it was “optional” to celebrate it. The feast day is 25 November, except in Russia where it is on the 24th.

Catherine’s attribute is first and foremost the wheel, preferably broken, which she is often to be recognized by. But other attributes are books, a bridal veil and ring, or a crown at her feet. The painting at the top of this post is made by Raphael, from about 1507, and is one of the many famous paintings of the saint.