Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria

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.
TOF's Faithful Reader may recall that the parish church in Oberhochwald/Eifelheim was the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast is today. She was one of the most popular saints in the Middle Ages, especially so in universities.

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.


  1. "Learned" is written twice in the summa at midpoint.

    What a saint. One sees how feeble he is when hearing St. Catherine's story.

  2. She's a patron of my younger daughter (who got the triple whammy of being born on St. Lawrence's day, having a mom named Anne and having a dad who greatly admired both great St Catherines - of Sienna and Alexandria. Thus she was christened Laura Anna Kate); older daughter had to settle for Teresa of Avila, another wilting violet of a women who put the fear of God into a few bishops. They made a saint out of her, too. (Oldest daughter got the triple whammy of being the granddaughter of a Mary Magdalene, a dad who loved St. Teresa of Avila, and being born on the feast of the obscure but lovely St. Lena of Bologna. Thus Elena Teresa Magdalena, which should serve her well if she ever takes up the Flamenco guitar)

    This pattern of oppression is just keeps going! The sainting of educated, strong women, I mean, not the overly florid daughters' names.

  3. Apropos of naming people after saints.

    Last summer I was wandering our (recently moved-into) neighborhood during the annual neighborhood garage/yard sale. Met a fellow who it turns out is a youth minister at a nearby Church of the Nazarene. During our conversation, I learned from him that his particular brand of Protestantism takes its name from the passage in the gospel of John, where the question is asked, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" They were originally formed as an offshoot of the Methodists who insisted on preaching the gospel on the other side of the tracks, the parts of town where no good is expected. So I naturally asked if there was a tendency among their co-religionists to name their sons "Nathaniel". Seemed perplexed that one would even think of that. It seems to me that if that were really part of my faith's history, I would certainly impose that self-understanding on one of children. But I guess if my thoughts run in those channels, I should be a Catholic. Which I am.

  4. What excellent timing--I just started reading Eifelheim. Or, to be precise, I'm studying it, in an effort to pull off the Carmen Sandiego-like heist of stealing your prose skills.

    1. Oh dear. I do hope you can give them back when you're done with them.

  5. St. Catherine is also very important in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, as well.


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