St Catherine – 15th century
Having just cast my vote in the current election for a new General Synod, I return to a theme that continues to fascinate me: the integrity and self-assurance so powerfully conveyed in medieval pictures of women saints – the virgin martyrs in particular.
In the world of action, deeds, narrative, Everyman is indeed a man, because (perhaps) men are able to do a wider range of things including, most importantly, fighting. In a renaissance and humanist context, mankind is presented as masculine – think of Leonardo’s nude inside the square and circle, his feet both together and apart – there he stands confident, self-defining, in control.
But the person? As person, you might say, apart from a narrative of deeds, and other than the thrusting champions of the new learning. As the ordinary Christian – someone whose life is largely controlled by others, or by outside forces, someone who suffers, someone whose life is constrained by circumstances, but who nevertheless by the powerful grace of God maintains her integrity, and enhances her status as person.
Our Lady, of course, expresses this quiet integrity better than any, but it is understandable if she is regarded as a special case. In her medieval role of penitent sinner (unlike her modern role of apostle), Mary Magdalene stands for each believer, male or female. But St Catherine of Alexandria, with only a legendary back story, offered the most popular expression of this vision of personal integrity.
Note the male king, with his henchmen, who sought to rape her, furtive and aggressive. Note the blood-thirsty violence of her wheel, destroyed and destroying. And in the centre the calm self-assurance of the saint herself. We cannot be absolutely sure, but the artist-illuminator was most probably a man, portraying her universal status and significance.