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Great-Martyr St. Catherine of Alexandria

IV Century
Born into a noble, possibly into a royal family, St. Catherine was a beautiful, learned, and wise maiden who converted to Christianity as a teenager. Legends differ in the telling of her life. Some say that she rebuked the emperor Maximinus Daja (some sources write instead Maxentius or Maximianus, neither of whom ruled Alexandria in the early IV Century) when he ordered a general sacrifice to the gods. Others assert that she resisted the adulterous advances of the Emperor. All agree that she had a vision of the Theotokos and Christ, either in Egypt or on a visit to Bethlehem, in which Christ, a child, gave her a ring as the token of their mystical marriage. This scene is a popular subject in Mediæval and Renaissance art. All agree that she disputed with 50 philosophers whom the emperor summoned to dissuade her from the faith. She converted them, and all the philosophers were burned. The emperor then ordered her strapped to a spiked wheel (now called the Catherine wheel) in the hope that the physical pain would break her spirit. When the wheel fell to pieces, the emperor ordered her beaten and imprisoned without food, again in the expectation that the physical discomfort would change her mind. Angels ministered to her, and a dove fed her. Catherine is said to have converted the empress and many soldiers, all of whom were martyred. She was beheaded c. 305. Angels are said to have transported her body, from which flowed milk rather than blood, to a mountain (now called Mt. St. Catherine) next to Mount Sinai. By the IX Century, her relics were being venerated in the monastery that had been on the site of the Burning Bush since the VI Century, and soon became so important to the monastery that it was renamed in her honour.

Veneration of St. Catherine was widespread in the Eastern and Western churches. The Roman church suppressed her feast in 1969, but restored it in 2002 after a papal visit to Sinai. The basis for the suppression of the feast was the supposed lack of historical evidence that the saint existed. (Some scholars even argue that she was a Christian fictional character based on the historical pagan martyr Hypatia of Alexandria.) However, Eusebius relates a nearly identical story about an unnamed noblewoman in the persecution of Maximinus, differing only in that the woman was exiled rather than martyred. If the woman in Eusebius is Catherine, the divergent ending could be explained by incomplete knowledge on the part of Eusebius's source; if not, the story at least shows that Maximinus was attracted to learned Christian women and tried to bully them into renouncing their faith, making the Catherine legend quite plausible.

Karen Rae Keck and Norman Hugh Redington


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