25th November is the feast day of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in most Christian Churches (although the Russian, Polish, Serbian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches celebrate it on 24th November).
Catherine is the patron saint of young maidens and scholars, theologians and philosophers, archivists and librarians, haberdashers and milliners, potters and wheelwrights (and many other things and places). Her name is also famously associated with the Catherine wheel firework.
Catherine is one the most represented saints in art from the medieval period to around the eighteenth century, when depicting saints largely fell out of favour, certainly in Britain.
But how do we know which saint is which? Saints in art were often depicted with certain attributes – props, if you like – that gave the viewer a clue, if you knew the story. In medieval Europe – a largely illiterate society – these attributes could help anyone understand which particular saint was being shown.
Artists therefore had a slightly macabre way of denoting saints – as many of the early saints were martyrs they would often give them the tools of their torture or death to signify who they were.
In Saint Catherine's case, she is usually shown with one or more of the following: a crown, a veil, a ring, a book, a sword, and a wheel... She also often carries a palm frond, which was to show she was a martyr who died for her Christian faith.
Here's her story, but bear in mind it's disputed whether there was ever a real Catherine or if her story was just a half-remembered series of persecutions of Christian women. (Confusingly, there was also another Saint Catherine – of Siena – who lived in the fourteenth century, but we'll leave her story for another day.)
Catherine was reputed to be the daughter of the governor of the city of Alexandria (in Roman Egypt) at the time of the Roman emperor Maxentius, who ruled from AD 306 to 312. As a noble (or even royal) woman, artists would often depict her with a crown.
As a young woman, she had a vision of the Virgin Mary and Jesus (as a child) who persuaded her to become a Christian – a faith that went against the Roman Empire's rule at the time.
Maxentius began persecuting Christians for their faith, so Catherine went to him and chastised him for his cruelty.
Roman Emperors were not known for having a sympathetic ear to criticism. Fifty pagan philosophers were employed by the emperor to persuade Catherine away from Christianity. However, Catherine's learning and eloquence won the debate and several of the philosophers immediately converted to Christianity.
As you can imagine, this enraged the emperor and they were put to death. The scene with the philosophers was one which artists occasionally represented. It is also an example of her great and impressive learning – the reason that many artists chose to depict her reading a book.
As a result of this episode, Catherine was brutally whipped and imprisoned without food, so she would starve to death (or so the emperor hoped...). The story goes that angels tended her wounds and a dove from Heaven fed her.
In the twelve days of her imprisonment, more than 200 people came to see her, including Maxentius' wife. All of them converted to Christianity and – you've possibly guessed it – were also killed.
As torture had failed to work, Maxentius tried proposing marriage. Unsurprisingly, Catherine refused. She said that she had consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ.
This idea was expanded on centuries later in the popular book of saints' lives, the Golden Legend. It became enshrined in art through the 'mystic marriage' of Saint Catherine – a popular subject in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance where the infant Jesus places a ring on Catherine's finger, symbolising her divine 'marriage' to him. This is why some portrayals of Catherine feature a ring and/or veil.
Yet again, Catherine's resilience made the emperor furious, and he ordered her death on a spiked breaking wheel – still the attribute most associated with her. However, Catherine's touch made it shatter before the brutal punishment could take place.
This dramatic scene shows the martyrdom of Catherine, including some divine intervention.
When all his efforts failed, Maxentius ordered Catherine to be beheaded. The sword Saint Catherine carries in many of the paintings of her alludes to her eventual method of execution.
The accepted version of her hagiography – the life of a saint – includes her asking Christ at the moment of her death to answer the prayers of those who remember her martyrdom and invoke her name.
In the medieval Christian mind, this made her a powerful intercessor – a saint or other figure who would intercede with God on behalf of the person praying.
Additionally, around the year AD 800, her body was supposedly rediscovered at Mount Sinai – her hair still growing and healing oil exuding from her body. This meant the site became an important place of pilgrimage, where people would make the journey to be healed. The monastery at Mount Sinai became known as St Catherine's Monastery and was very difficult to reach.
All of this meant that Saint Catherine was one of the most important saints in the late Middle Ages, and probably the most important of the 'virgin martyrs'. This led to her many depictions in the art of the time, and in the subsequent centuries.
As the Renaissance progressed many famous artists produced works of Saint Catherine, including this much-loved work by Raphael, now in The National Gallery.
Titian also apparently painted Saint Catherine, but not exactly as you might think. The artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote that Titian was asked to paint portraits of the wife and daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (r.1520–1566)
This picture may record a lost portrait of Cameria, Suleiman's daughter. The spiked wheel, as we know, is used to identify Saint Catherine. It transforms the (Muslim) sultan's daughter into a Christian saint. This may have seemed appropriate at the time because at the time Alexandria was part of the Ottoman Empire – but it's certainly an unusual painting!
The trend of portraying real people as Saint Catherine continued in the following centuries. Perhaps one of the more famous examples today is the self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi, recently acquired by The National Gallery.
Gentileschi paints herself as the saint, leaning on a broken wheel studded with iron spikes – perhaps it is significant here that the artist has depicted a broken wheel instead of the more complete versions often seen in earlier paintings. She's also holding a martyr's palm.
From this time onward, there was a certain fashion for representing aristocratic women as Saint Catherine – in much the same way as aristocratic women 'cosplayed' as other famous women from history and myth, such as Saint Cecilia, the muses and Cleopatra.
At least two English queens were depicted as Saint Catherine – firstly Henrietta Maria (Charles I's wife) by Van Dyck, and then Catherine of Braganza (Charles II's wife) by Jacob Huysmans (in the Royal Collection). Catherine of Braganza had at least been born on Saint Catherine's Day, so perhaps had more claim to it!
Dating from around the same time, there is an example by Sir Peter Lely of Eleanor Needham as Saint Catherine, with palm frond and resting on a wheel. It was possibly intended to flatter Catherine of Braganza.
This painting by Benedetto Gennari is of Elizabeth Panton, the daughter of Colonel Thomas Panton, a member of Charles II's guards. Elizabeth had left England in 1681 with her mother and brother to escape persecution as they were Roman Catholics. In 1689 Gennari followed James II's court into exile in France, and this was the first work he produced there. Elizabeth's portrayal as Catherine is a statement of her Catholicism.
Moving into the later centuries, although the saint fell out of fashion in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, she had a bit of a comeback in popularity in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite version brings back many of the attributes seen in earlier works – perhaps unsurprising for a movement so concerned with recreating the art of the past.
Around this time, several artists began to look to Old Masters of Saint Catherine to copy.
These include Christiana Herringham's work after Botticelli's Sant'Ambrogio Altarpiece (now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence). Herringham has picked out just Saint Catherine's head from a work that includes the Madonna and Child, and five other saints.
Vanessa Bell produced a copy after Raphael's work in The National Gallery, as did Rebecca Dulcibella Orpen.
This work by Daisy M. Norrie is a copy of a Titian painting of Caterina Cornaro, the last Queen of Cyprus. The original is in the Uffizi, and in Titian's version you can see the spiked wheel behind her.
Throughout art history, depicting Saint Catherine has been appealing for the many qualities she is said to have had – learning, steadfastness, purity, religious devotion, and even beauty.
The range of different Catherines across the centuries proves that she has provided generations of artists with inspiration – whether divine or otherwise.
Andrew Shore, Head of Content at Art UK