St. Catherine was a maiden of Alexandria. The Golden Legend relates that she was of royal parentage, the daughter of King Costus of Cililia and Princess Sabinella of Samaria. Legends that do not claim such an exalted origin declare that she was nobly born, but do not name her parents or mention their rank. She was, from all accounts, well-versed in all the arts and sciences. In addition to having acquired knowledge, she had also acquired great wisdom, far beyond her years.
Some say that she was converted to Christianity during the course of her wide-ranging studies, while others offer a different account: at seventeen she was sent to Armenia, where she publicized her intent to marry if she could find a bridegroom as handsome, as learned, and as wise as she. A hermit named Ananias found the only suitable bridegroom for her: Christ. The solitary instructed her to pray to the Theotokos that she be allowed to see Mary's Son. The next day the hermit explained to Catherine that Christ rejected her as ugly because of her vanity. After Catherine was catechized and baptized, she again besought a vision of the Son of Mary, who accepted the now humble woman joyfully. He is said also to have presented her with a ring as a token of their mystical marriage. This marriage became a spiritual prototype and has been a popular subject in Western religious art. Although the stories of her conversion vary in specific details, all agree that the vision of the Theotokos with Christ as a child was central to Catherine's metanoia (repentance) and faith.
Around the time that Catherine was eighteen, the emperor (Maximinus in some accounts, Maxentius in others) decreed that all Roman citizens must sacrifice to the gods. The order may have been a ploy to bring out and persecute Christians, or it may simply have been a means by which the caesar offered thanksgiving for recent victories. Sorrowful that many Christians were apostatizing, Catherine rebuked the emperor and argued by logic and mysticism that Christianity is the true faith. Unable to refute her arguments, the emperor summoned fifty philosophers to debate the maiden. In the course of her statements, Catherine demonstrated that the pagan Greek poets and philosophers all point to Christ. The fifty philosophers converted to Christianity and were burnt for their failure to achieve their appointed task.
The emperor then proposed marriage to the adamant virgin. When she refused him, he ordered her to be killed on the spiked wheel that now bears her name. After the wheel disintegrated and left Catherine unharmed, the emperor ordered that she be beaten and imprisoned without food in the expectation that the physical discomforts would humble her. She is said to have been fed by a dove while she was in prison. Out of curiosity the empress and an army officer visited Catherine in her cell. Both saw angels ministering to her and were converted, as were the soldiers who guarded the maiden, and those soldiers whom Porphyrius, the stratopedarches (commander), commanded. They were all were martyred when the emperor received the news of their conversion.
Furious, the ruler decreed that Catherine must be beheaded. When her head was severed, milk flowed from her body instead of blood. She is reported to have died around the year 305. Angels are said to have transported her body from Alexandria to Mount Sinai, where it lay hidden until the ninth century. St. Catherine's Monastery, built on the site of Moses' burning bush, took her name after the discovery of her body and continues to treasure her relics.
St. Catherine is usually depicted in icons as a young woman wearing jewels and a crown (symbolic less of her aristocratic pedigree than of her martyrdom) and a robe richly embroidered with double-headed eagles. She is seated at a scholar's desk, holding the palm frond of martyrdom as if it were a quill pen. (The ikon shown here has transfered the frond to her left hand, but her right hand remains lifted in the position of writing.)
At her feet are the tools of scholarship -- books, musical and medical instruments, a celestial sphere, its curve echoing that of the terrible spiked wheel. Sometimes the desk itself is carved with figures of the Graces or the Muses: the latter of course recall the great Museion or University of Alexandria where some traditions say Catherine studied astronomy and medicine. The symbols of science and art are at her feet, because the arts and sciences have been made subject to Christ, but they are present in the holy space of the ikon nevertheless. In much the same way, Catherine' speech in the stadium both used and transcended the methods of Greek philosophy to convert her philosopher-interlocutors. The ikon of Saint Catherine is thus a beautiful symbol of the Orthodox transfiguration and redemption of all human learning.
- Normal Dionysios Redington