Catherine of Alexandria, also referred to as Saint Catherine of the Wheel or the Great Martyr, was a Christian saint. She was one of the most important virgin martyrs in the religious culture of the late Middle Ages. Well-recognized as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, she protested against the discrimination against Christians under the Roman Emperor Maxentius and defeated the most eminent scholars summoned by him to oppose her. Catherine of Alexandria was eventually tortured and sentenced to death. During her imprisonment, she stated that she had consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ. Born in 287 in Alexandria, Egypt, to then-governor of Alexandria, she grew up in a noble household. By her teens, she had become a noted scholar. Naturally god-gifted and incredibly intelligent, Catherine of Alexandria became a Christian at the age of 14 after seeing a vision of Baby Jesus and Saint Mary. At the age of 18, she debated with 50 pagan philosophers and converted hundreds of people to Christianity, including members of Maxentius’ family, all of whom were sentenced to death. The Roman Martyrology celebrates 25 November as her feast day.
Background & Conversion to Christianity
Catherine was born in 287 CE in Alexandria, Roman Egypt, to Constus, then-governor of Alexandria who served under the reign of Emperor Maximian. She grew up in a well-to-do family and was extremely good in studies. At the age of 14, a vision of Baby Jesus and Saint Mary persuaded her to become a Christian. Her beauty captured the attention of Emperor Maxentius, the successor to Emperor Maximian, who proposed marriage to her. She, however, refused, citing that she was a Christian and was married to Jesus Christ. She was made to debate 50 pagan philosophers and orators who questioned her religion. Her eloquence and knowledge not only won her the debates, but also persuaded them to become Christians.
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Imprisonment, Torture & Martyrdom
The furious Maxentius ordered the imprisonment of Catherine of Alexandria. During her imprisonment, she was scourged so brutally that her whole body bled frequently, with steams of blood flowing. However, she didn’t show any signs of fear or suffering. She was not given food so that she would starve to death. According to Orthodox churches, angles from heaven would come to feed her and heal her wounds. It is also said that Jesus visited her as well.
Catherine of Alexandria was visited by hundreds of people during her imprisonment, including Maxentius' wife, Valeria Maximilla, who converted to Christianity. After the failure of frequent torture attempts, the emperor again decided to win her over by proposing marriage. She declined, citing that Jesus Christ was her spouse. Maxentius then ordered her execution on a spiked breaking wheel. When the wheel was presented before her, it shattered after Catherine touched it. She was ordered to be beheaded at once. Her death is recorded to have occurred in c. 305.
According to Christianity, a flight of angels descended from above and took her holy body to Mount Sinai where God had given the Ten Commandments to Moses. The mountain peak is now called Mt. Saint Catherine and has her monastery.
In 850, a group of monks discovered her incorrupt body with her hair still growing and fragrant healing oil oozing from it. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian established Saint Catherine's Monastery in Egypt that contains her relics, including her left hand and head. The monastery survives and is a popular repository of ancient Christian art, illuminated manuscripts, and architecture. The site remains open to tourists worldwide and is sacred in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Another western shrine of the martyr saint is in Rouen, where her fingers are kept as relics. More sites such as Westminster and Canterbury claimed a phial of the oil which was brought from Mount Sinai by Edward the Confessor.
Veneration & Feast
Every year, Christian churches commemorate Catherine of Alexandria on 25 November. However, the Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Polish Orthodox churches celebrate her feast day on 24 November. Her principal symbol is the spiked wheel or the infamous Catherine wheel.
In Russia, the Catholic Church of St. Catherine, one of the oldest Roman Catholic churches, was named after her because she was Catherine the Great's patron. In France, Holy Day of Obligation was celebrated as a day of her commemoration. Celebrated up to the beginning of the 17th century, the day observed prayers in churches where statues of her with a wheel were placed.
Also in France, unmarried women who had attained the age of 25 wore decorated bonnets on her feast day. This custom gave birth to the French idiom “coiffer Sainte-Catherine” (in English - 'don St. Catherine's bonnet') to represent an unwed lady. This tradition exists even today.
In the 15th century, it was rumored that Joan of Arc spoke to her heavenly voice, and she along with Saint Margaret were divinely appointed as her advisers.
The Catherine Wheel, which revolves with its sparks flying off in every direction, is named after the saint's wheel of martyrdom.
On 25 November 1473, then-provost of King's College Cambridge, Robert Woodlark, founded St. Catharine's College, Cambridge. The college is today occupied by a small community of students who exclusively study philosophy and theology.
Donald Attwater, an English Catholic author of the late 1890s, argued for a lack of any concrete evidence that proves that Catherine of Alexandria ever existed.
According to him, she is only a figure of imagination of a Greek writer. Another writer, Harold Davis, also believed her to be an invention to offer a counterpart to philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria’s story. As per historic records, Hypatia was a Greek philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician, who was murdered by some Christians after being accused of aggravating a fight between the bishop, Cyril of Alexandria, and the governor, Orestes.