Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Life and Afterlife of St. Catherine of Alexandria

Lorenzo Lotto, Saint Catherine of Alexandria,1522
Note: The following article appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of The Latin Mass magazine on pages 48-52 (vol. 24, issue 3). Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its publication here.

“When the legend becomes fact,” asserts a famous John Ford movie, “print the legend.” But would the patron saint of philosophers agree? Perhaps, if the legend were about herself.

St. Catherine of Alexandria was a devout noblewoman or princess who was so well educated in the liberal arts that by the age of eighteen she surpassed most learned men. Catherine reportedly had a vision in which she married Jesus Christ: according to one account, He appeared as an Infant and placed a ring on her finger. This mystical marriage also foreshadowed Catherine’s participation in the sufferings of her Spouse.
Around the year 305, when the Emperor Maximinus began persecuting Christians, Catherine courageously upbraided him. Marveling at her boldness, Maximinus imprisoned her and summoned fifty philosophers to debate her. Instead of being overwhelmed, Catherine won many of them over to Christ, so much so that they vowed to die a martyr’s death. Catherine had a similar effect on the Emperor’s wife and on his chief general, both of whom converted to Christianity and were subsequently martyred.
After various attempts to bribe and intimidate her failed, the Emperor sentenced Catherine to die on a wheel spiked with sharp knives. The wheel, however, was struck by lightning and exploded, the shrapnel killing several onlookers. This miracle inspired more conversions, but it did not quell the Emperor’s wrath, who ordered Catherine to be beheaded. After she died, Angels transported the saint’s remains to Mount Sinai.
Caravaggio, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1598
In the early ninth century, the monks of the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai discovered the saint’s body, its hair still growing and a miraculous healing oil emanating from its bones. Ever since, the monastery (now nicknamed St. Catherine’s) has been a popular pilgrimage site. Even the Muslims who had recently conquered Egypt treated the site as sacred and sought its healing oil. [1]
Saint Catherine’s Ossuary, Mount Sinai
Holy Influence
St. Catherine cult’s spread quickly through Europe with the return of the Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Priests began blessing oil in honor of the saint as a remedy for arthritis, asthma, and festering sores. [2] In the wake of the Plague, Catherine was numbered among the Fourteen Holy Helpers, invoked against sudden death.
Saint Catherine’s association with a wheel made her the patron saint of anyone linked to wheels or wheel-like devices: carters, wheelwrights, rope makers, seamstresses, weavers, wool spinners, milliners, millers, tailors, potters, and grinders, to name a few. Her association with intellectual excellence and forensic skills also inspired notaries, attorneys, orators, scholars, philosophers, preachers, theologians, students (especially female), the Sorbonne in Paris, and St. Catharine’s College in Cambridge to claim her as their patroness.
Because of the manner of her martyrdom, St. Catherine is invoked against head ailments such as headache, migraine, and brain tumors. And because of her virginal marriage to Christ, she is called upon as a protector of purity, a matchmaker for unwed girls, and a patroness of childcare and nurses. Catherine was even asked to protect against shipwreck, perhaps for no other reason than that she had a reputation for powerful intercession.
Moreover, St. Catherine is credited with helping others become saints. St. Paul of Latrus (d. 956), a hermit who lived in present-day Turkey, “kept her feast with extraordinary solemnity and devotion.” [3] St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) is said to have had a special attraction to St. Catherine from her infancy. When Gertrude asked how great were the saint’s merits, Our Lord showed her a vision of St. Catherine “seated on a throne so lofty and so magnificent that it seemed her glory was sufficient to have filled the courts of heaven had she been its sole queen; while from her crown a marvelous brightness was reflected on her devout clients.” [4]
St. Catherine also appeared along with Our Lady to Blessed Reginald of Orleans (1180-1220) and to Saint Dominic (1170-1221), which is why she is one of the Dominicans’ special patronesses.
One Dominican tertiary, St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), knew of her namesake’s mystical marriage and prayed as a child for a similar destiny. At the age of twenty-one, her prayer was answered when she was supernaturally betrothed to Our Lord. Just as St. Catherine of Alexandria’s espousals to Christ prepared her for martyrdom, so too did Catherine of Siena’s prepare her for the stigmata.
For seven years St. Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was guided by several heavenly voices that she called her “counsel.” Among those that visited her, the Maid of Orleans recognized St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Margaret of Antioch, and St. Michael the Archangel. It was probably these voices that told her to look for an ancient sword buried behind the altar of a chapel. The name of the chapel: Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois. During the trial that would end her life, St. Joan resisted efforts to entrap her over details concerning the saints’ appearance or how she was able to recognize them. But she nevertheless declared to her judges: “saw them with these very eyes as well as I see you.” [5]
Hermann Anton Stilke, Life of St. Joan of Arc, 1843
Cultural Impact
St. Catherine’s name retains a steady popularity through its multiple variations: Katherine, Kathleen (Irish), Karen (Danish), Kateri, etc. The saint has inspired other kinds of naming as well. In France, the senior advocate or head of the legal system is called a batônnier (“banner holder”) because it was his privilege to carry St. Catherine’s banner in procession. [6] In English, a “catherine" was once a kind of carriage, pear, and plum, [7] while a “Catherine wheel” can refer to a pin-wheel firework, a wagon-wheel window, or a cartwheel summersault. [8] California’s Santa Catalina Island, Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains, Brazil’s state of Santa Catarina, and the Catharina crater on the moon are also named after the saint. [9]
A Catherine wheel, photograph by Peter van der Sluijs, 2018
Catherine’s cult was immensely popular in the Middle Ages, and her first-class feast day was kept with great festivity. Many people, especially students, were free from class or toil that day. And because St. Catherine’s Day is so close to the beginning of the subdued season of Advent, it became a “last call” for merriment and an excellent day for weddings. Hence the rhyme:
On Catherine’s day
Your wedding is gay;
But Andrew’s day [10]
Takes the feasting away. [11]
Capping Saint Catherine
Saint Catherine’s Day was assiduously observed in France, where it was a holy day of obligation until the seventeenth century and where unmarried women twenty-five and older became known as “catherinettes.” These, ahem, spinsters formed confraternities to care for St. Catherine’s statue and to adorn it on her feast day with a special cap made in St. Catherine’s colors of yellow (for faith) and green (for knowledge).
The catherinettes likewise wore a similar hat on their patron’s feast day. In some parts of France, the eldest catherinette in the village wore a starched cap while the others wore a paper bonnet as they pleaded with the virgin martyr for a husband. From these customs, the expression “to cap St. Catherine” (coiffer Sainte-Catherine) came to mean reaching the age of twenty-five as an unmarried woman. Passersby would wish the easily recognizable ladies a speedy end to their singlehood, and special balls in their honor would be held.
In twentieth-century Paris, attention converged on the midinettes or shop girls, especially those who worked in the fashion or milliner industry. Seamstresses shut their doors on St. Catherine’s Day and made merry with champagne, oysters, sweets, and dancing. If there were any catherinettes among them, outrageous hats were made for them. Often the highlight of the day was a visit from the head designer (a rare honor), who toured the richly decorated facility and bestowed treats.
Parisian catherinettes would keep the vigil of the feast by locking arms and strolling down the Rue de la Paix, first to pay homage to the statue of St. Catherine, then to celebrate into the night in nearby cafes. These parades sometimes grew riotous as young men tried to steal a kiss from the participants. In 1925, police had to intervene when 300 to 400 Frenchmen crowded around one woman and fought enthusiastically “for the honor of planting the first kiss on her fair cheeks.” [12] Was the damsel that beautiful, I wonder, or was she wearing a really fetching hat?
Catherinettes, Paris, 1909
The Fete des Catherinettes has declined considerably, but it is still kept by the hat-making and dressmaking trades. In 2015, the Club Chapeau Passion (Club Hat Passion) in France sponsored an international competition in which contestants submitted a yellow and green hat that was judged by “a highly qualified jury.” The event consisted of a parade, an awards ceremony, and “a festive evening.” [13]
Catherinette Hat Competition, Paris, 2015
Women’s Day and Catterning
While St. Catherine’s Day may be linked to old maids in France, in Estonia the feast is used to honor all women. Kadripäev, as the holiday is called, survived a half-century of Soviet occupation and is still celebrated widely today, especially by students and the rural population. The day is marked by freedom from servile labor (especially sewing and shepherding, an Estonian woman’s traditional job), songs, and light-colored women’s clothing, which even men may wear on this day in honor of the saint and the coming winter.
Kadripäev, or rather the night before, is also an occasion of ritual almsgiving. On the vigil of the feast, Kadrisants or kadris (Catherine beggars) go door-to-door and beg for food and supplies in exchange for songs and blessings. In this respect, modern-day Estonia is not that different from medieval England, when “Katterners” would “go katterning,” begging for apples and beer while serenading homes with such memorable ditties as:
Cattern and Clemen be here, here, here,
Give us your apples and give us your beer. [14]
Katterning or catterning, needless to say, was similar to the practice of souling on All Hallows’ Eve.
Catherine Treats
As the goal of catterning implies, one cannot celebrate on an empty stomach. In northern France a heart-shaped cake called coeur de Sainte Catherine (St. Catherine’s heart) was given to a catherinette, though we do not think the saint would mind if the whole family enjoyed the treat. [15] In England, “Cattern cakes” made with caraway seeds were baked by lace-makers who invoked St. Catherine as their patron. [16]  In French Canada, unmarried girls would make “St. Catherine’s taffy” and give it to eligible boys. The holiday is nicknamed Taffy Day by some French Canadians.
And if sugar is not your preferred vice, turn to the “Cattern bowl,” a mixture of wine, spices, etc. once given to the members of Worcester College, Oxford by their dean. An easier option is a Bijou, a semi-sweet and complex cocktail recommended in my book Drinking With the Saints. [17]  And be sure to decorate your Cattern Cocktail Party in yellow and green.
Art and Literature
St. Catherine left an indelible mark on art. The Alexandrian saint with her recognizable wheel and mystical marriage were popular subjects for artists from the late Middle Ages on. Raphael painted her, and so did the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines, Caravaggio, Jusepe de Rivera, Il Correggio, and countless others.
One depiction that deserves special mention is the stained glass of St. Catherine in Christ Church in Oxford, England. The face of the virgin martyr in the depiction is that of Edith Liddell, the younger sister of Alice Liddell, after whom Alice in Wonderland is named. While one Liddell girl was inspiring Lewis Carroll to write, the other was inspiring Sir Edward Burne-Jones to stain glass.
Edward Burne-Jones, Saint Catherine Window, Christ Church, Oxford, 1878
In literature, Saint Catherine was praised in every language, including the Latin of Adam of St. Victor in his sequence Vox Sonora nostri chori; the medieval Irish of an unknown poet in Réalta an chruinne Fhíona, “Catherine, Star of the World;” the Middle English of John Capgrave’s The Life of St. Katharine of Alexandria; and the mellifluous French of Bishop Bossuet’s panegyric to St. Catherine. Father Robert Hugh Benson’s Alphabet of Saints has a touching poem, “K for Saint Katherine.”
Counter-Reformation Decline
In contrast to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the modern period proved to be unkind to Catherine’s cult. In the seventeenth century, great orators like Bossuet were still eulogizing the saint, but by the eighteenth century an editor of Bossuet’s works, the Benedictine Dom Deforis, was declaring the ode to be in large measure false. A century earlier, holy sages like Robert Bellarmine had recommended that certain improbable legends about St. Catherine be expunged. By the end of the eighteenth century, St. Catherine’s feast had been removed from the Paris Breviary.
What happened? Most likely, fantastical elements in St. Catherine’s biography made it difficult for Catholic apologists to defend the historical reliability of the Church from Protestant detractors. Alban Butler in his Lives of the Saints writes that her acts “are so much adulterated that little use can be made of them,” [18]  while the great scholar Cardinal Cesare Baronius, who dedicated twelve volumes to chronicling the history of the Church, regretted that “extreme critics” were seizing on the stories of St. Catherine to undermine devotion to the saints and, ultimately, the Church’s credibility. [19] To right the Barque of Saint Peter, it appeared that some jetsam needed to be discarded. That effort to save the ship, however, did not include throwing Saint Catherine herself overboard. Summing up the Catholic scholarly position at the beginning of the twentieth century, the 1915 Catholic Encyclopedia states: “Although contemporary hagiographers look upon the authenticity of the various texts containing the legend of St. Catherine as more than doubtful, it is not therefore meant to cast even the shadow of a doubt around the existence of the saint.” [20]
Post-Vatican-II Plight
Precisely this shadow, however, was cast by Archbishop Bugnini’s Consilium in charge of reforming the Roman liturgy after Vatican II. Saint Catherine’s existence was not denied outright nor her cult suppressed, but the insinuation was clear enough when her feast was removed from the general calendar in 1969. The Consilium looked askance at saints whose lives could not be verified according to the canons of modern historical scholarship, and so Catherine joined the ranks of other popular folk saints such as Christopher and Valentine in no longer being liturgically venerated by the universal Church. One of the most cherished saints of the Middle Ages was now to be quietly forgotten.
Progressive theologians hailed the new calendar and its rationale as “long overdue.” [21] “If the very existence” of a saint is in doubt, one of them asked, “what does that say about invoking her?” [22]
It is a valid question. Certainly, the documentation on Catherine of Alexandria is far from ideal. There is no contemporary evidence of her existence and no biography of her until the tenth century. Pilgrims’ journals to Mount Sinai in late antiquity make no mention of her relics, and certain aspects of her story, such as her mystical marriage, do no not appear until 1337—and only then in the Latin West rather than the Greek East which first spread her cult. Even her name is puzzling. The name Aikaterinē appears to have originated with her, and although it is believed to be derived from “pure” (katharos), not even this is clear. [23]
The most tantalizing evidence we have is an account from the fourth-century historian Eusebius, who writes of a noble, virtuous, and singularly learned lady from Alexandria who, unlike her peers, refused to be debauched by Maximinus and was subsequently banished. [24] Could this be the pure one later known as Catherine?
On the other hand stand the testimonies of the saints whose lives were changed by St. Catherine. Even if we grant that Catherine of Siena’s hopes for a mystical marriage were based on a pious fiction, this concession would not mean that Catherine of Alexandria’s cult has no ground in reality and that no saint dwells in Heaven who has been answering to the name of Catherine. Even under the threat of being burned alive at the stake, St. Joan of Arc affirmed that she saw St. Catherine as clearly as she saw her condemners. Are we ready to call her delusional? And whose miraculous bones were those that were discovered?
Saint Catherine and Angels, 16th century
The controversy surrounding St. Catherine is one of the clearest examples of the conflict between what Chesterton calls “old wives’ tales” and “old maids’ facts,” between the valuable scholarly discipline of history and the invaluable lived memory and experience of the Church. Although historical scholarship deserves to be taken seriously, Chesterton nonetheless sides with the old wives. “It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history,” G. K. writes. “The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.” [25] How ironic that in 1969 the patron saint of old maids succumbed to old maids of a different kind.
The triumphant spinsterism of liturgical experts, however, was short-lived. In 2002, St. Catherine of Alexandria returned to the general calendar, her liturgical veneration reappearing as an optional memorial on November 25. Just as no official reason was given for her omission, none was given for her re-inclusion. Some speculate that Pope Saint John Paul II was making an ecumenical gesture to the Eastern Orthodox, who continue to venerate St. Catherine as a Great Martyr; others that the pope, a lifelong student of philosophy, wished to see the cult of the patron saint of philosophers restored.
But perhaps the real reason is that the Pope saw something that the Consilium had overlooked, something that a Franciscan friar had also once observed in 1943:
To suppress all legend would take from us in some cases the only way which can lead us across a chasm separating us from our forebears. Legend is indeed a precarious bridge to cross such a gap, but a bridge it remains. It may be weighted down with the accumulations and parasitic growths of centuries, and it may be weakened under its own enormous weight of improbability. But the very ivy of fancy which at one time forced its way between the stones, today keeps those poorly-jointed arches from falling into oblivion. We cannot cross a chasm on such a bridge, but the fact that there is a bridge tells us that we are face to face with a chasm and not a void—that beyond the dark and seemingly impassible gorge there is a solid foundation which offers a firm support to the mossgrown and picturesque bridge of legend.[26]
St. Catherine of Alexandria, pray for us!
[1] Francis X. Weiser, SJ, The Holyday Book (Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1956), 192.
[2] Weiser, 192.
[3] Alban Butler, The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, Vol. 4 (St. Bonaventure, 1997 reprint), 254.
[4] Guéranger, Liturgical Year, vol. 15 (St. Bonaventure, 1949/2000), 350.
[5] Herbert Thurston, “St. Joan of Arc,” Catholic Encyclopedia.
[6] Guéranger, 350.
[7] “Catherine, n.,” 2, Oxford English Dictionary.
[8] “Catherine wheel, n.,” OED, 2, 3, and 4.
[9] Catharina is part of a chain of three lunar craters; the other two are named after Sts. Cyril and Theophilus of Alexandria.
[10] November 30. The First Sunday of Advent can fall between November 27 and December 3.
[11] Weiser, 193.
[14] “Kattern, n.,” OED. The “Clemen” is St. Clement, whose feast day falls on November 23.
[15] For a recipe, see Evelyn Birge Vitz, A Continual Feast (Ignatius Press, 1985), 283.
[17] Drinking With the Saints (Regnery, 2015), 327.
[18] Butler, 253.
[19] Annales Ecclesiastici 3, ad ann 307; see Gueranger’s summary on page 350 of volume 15.
[20] Léon Clugnet, “Catherine of Alexandria,” Catholic Encyclopedia.
[21] James F. White, Roman Catholic Worship: Trent to Today (Liturgical Press, 2003), 136.
[22] White, 137.
[23] See Christine Walsh, The Cult of Saint Katerine of Alexandria in Early Medieval Europe (Ashgate, 2007), 1, n. 1; 7-22.
[24] Eusebius, Histories 8.14.
[25] Orthodoxy (Ignatius Press, 1908/1995), 53.
[26] Peter Biasiotto, The History of the Development of Devotion to the Holy Name (St. Bonaventure, 1943), 14. My thanks to Peter Kwasniewski for sharing this citation with me.

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