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Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel, is an apocryphal figure claimed to have been a noted scholar in the early fourth century who, at the age of only 18, is said to have visited the Emperor Maximinus II[?] and to have convinced him of the error of his ways in persecuting Christians. According to legend, she also converted a high number of pagans, who were subsequently murdered. The legend of Catherine continues that she was condemned to death on the wheel, but that it broke when she touched it, so she was beheaded. Angels then, the legend continues, carried her body to Mt. Sinai, where a church and monastery were later built and named for her. Her symbol is the spiked wheel, and her feast day is 25 November.

Catherine probably did not exist. In 1969, the Catholic Church removed her feast day from its general calendar, citing a lack of historical evidence for her existence. Secular scholars confirm this view [1]. She did certainly form an important counterpart to Hypatia of Alexandria in the medieval mindset; and it has been suggested that she was invented specifically for that purpose. Like Hypatia, she is said to have been highly learned (in philosophy and theology), very beautiful, sexually pure, and to have been brutally murdered for publicly stating her beliefs; conveniently 105 years before Hypatia's death (although first records mentioning her, or one of her variants, date much later).

The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia[?] describes the historical importance of the belief in her as follows:

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 a well known fact that Bossuet dedicated to her one of his most beautiful panegyrics and that Adam of Saint-Victor wrote a magnificent poem in her honour: "Vox Sonora nostri chori", etc. In many places her feast was celebrated with the utmost solemnity, servile work being suppressed and the devotions being 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 seventeenth century, the splendour of its ceremonial eclipsing that of the feasts of some of the Apostles. Numberless chapels were placed under her patronage and her statue was found in nearly all churches, representing her according to medieval inconography with a wheel, her instrument of torture. Whilst, owing to several circumstances in his life, St. Nicholas of Myra, was considered the patron of young bachelors and students, St. Catherine became the patroness of young maidens and female students. Looked upon as the holiest and most illustrious of the virgins of Christ, it was but 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 St. Catherine which assumed such vast proportions in Europe after the Crusades, received additional eclat in France in the beginning of the fifteenth century, when it was rumoured that she had appeared to Joan of Arc and, together with St. Margaret, had been divinely appointed Joan's adviser.

[1] See, for example, Harold Thayler Davis: "Alexandria: The Golden City" (Principia Press of Illinois, 1957).



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