|St. Catherine of Alexandria|
Symbolism. The martyr's crown. The wheel on which
she was tortured. The sword by which she was beheaded.
The books and astrolabe for her erudition.
The oldest surviving version of her story is found in the 9th century Menologium Basilianum, compiled for Emperor Basil II. The report runs as follows:
“The martyr Aikaterina was the daughter of a rich and noble prince of Alexandria. She was very beautiful, and being at the same time highly talented, she devoted herself to Greek literature as well as to the study of the languages of all nations, and so she became wise and learned. And it happened that the Greeks held a festival in honor of their idols; and seeing the slaughter of animals, she was so greatly moved that she went to the King Maximinus and expostulated with him in these words: 'Why hast thou left the living God to worship lifeless idols?' But the Emperor caused her to be thrown into prison, and to be punished severely. He then ordered fifty orators to be brought, and bade them to reason with Aikaterina, and confute her, threatening to burn them all if they should fail to overpower her. The orators, however, when they saw themselves vanquished, received baptism, and were burnt forthwith, while she was beheaded.” (Menologium Basilianum)
Thus, did the Church regard learned learned women who disputed philosophy. She made saints of them.
Over at Siris, Brandon also comments on her, noting that she is the "patron saint of philosophers, orators, teachers, jurists, theologians, librarians, scribes, schoolgirls, milliners, lacemakers, potters, wheelwrights, and virgins." [Quite a list.] "Patronage always conveys a history of signs. She's the patron of so many intellectual professions because according to legend she argued with philosophers and rhetoricians, and refuted them all. As a result she became closely associated with university life in the Middle Ages. She's the patron of potters, because she was killed on a wheel* and has the wheel as one of her iconic symbols; wheelwrights make wheels and potters use wheels, so potters and wheelwrights share symbolism with her. And she is the patron of milliners and lacemakers because of an old custom in which unmarried women on St. Catherine's Day would have their own celebration, complete with finery, so those groups became closely associated with her festivities."
(*) The wheel is often portrayed as broken since in the legends the Romans tried to break her on the wheel, but the wheel broke instead.