St Catherine of Alexandria

How do the defeated find encouragement? How does the minority see its hope of victory in the face of a rampant majority? How do the persecuted come to terms with their downfall?

In Christian art and devotion, the young women martyrs have, above all, given expression to this dual paradox of victory and defeat, of triumph and disaster. They are figures of supreme strength and complete vulnerability. Largely because they have no history, and often no origin nor even a name, they become an adaptable image of the spiritual anguish of the faithful.

Catherine of Alexandria might possibly have been a martyr of the fourth century, but her cult dates from five hundred years later and is entirely legendary. She is first tortured on a (Catherine) wheel, which breaks, killing some of her torturers; she is then beheaded; her body is then carried by monks to Mount Sinai.

In this late fifteenth century English manuscript, the elements of St Catherine’s defeat and destruction are clearly portrayed but also subtly changed. The wheel is set in the background, in a Flemish-inspired courtyard, with just a hint of the fire from heaven. More significantly the crown of martyrdom has become the crown of a queen; the sword that beheads her is held as a symbol of regal authority; note also the confident femininity of her flowing hair.

Beneath her feet, a bearded tyrant, the very essence of force and brutality, lies crushed and broken. How can so fragile and delicate a person hold down so vicious a scoundrel? By the power of the word. The sacred book she holds (and one can sense its weight in her right arm) is strength enough and more to establish her triumph. Even in defeat, the faithful are the victors.

Nigel Anthony