Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Catharine, martyr of Alexandria

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Catharine (Catharina, Catherine, etc.), St., virgin and martyr of Alexandria. Tillemont writes, in the 17th cent., that it would be hard to find a saint more generally reverenced, or one of whom so little was known on credible authority, and adds that no single fact about her is certain (Mém. eccl. vii. pp. 447, 761; cf. Papebrocius, as quoted in Baron. Ann. Eccl. ed. Theiner, iii. ad ann. 307).

The earliest mention of St. Catharine in the Eastern church (v. Menology of Basil) under the name of Ηἱκαθαρίνα (possibly a corruption of ἡ καθαρίνη, dim. of καθαρός, pure), is about the end of 9th cent. (Tillem. u.s.; Baillet, Vies des Saints, tom. viii. Nov. 25); in 13th cent. she appears in the Latin Martyrologies (Baillet, ib.), the crusaders having brought her fame to Europe among other marvels from the East. Some time in the 8th or 9th cent. the monks on Mount Sinai disinterred the body, as they were eager to believe, of one of those Christian martyrs whose memory they cherished. Eusebius relates how a lady of Alexandria—he omits her name—was one of the victims of Maximinus early in 4th cent. (H. E. xiii. 14). It was easy to identify the corpse as that of the anonymous sufferer, to invent a name for it, and to bridge over the distance between Alexandria and Mount Sinai. Simeon Metaphrastes, a legendist of Constantinople in 10th cent., gives a long account of St. Catharine's martyrdom, with horrible details of her tortures, an exact report of her dispute in public with the philosophers of the city and of the learned oration by which she converted them and the empress Faustina and many of the court, and how her corpse was transported to Mount Sinai by angels (Martin, Vies des Saints, tom. iii. pp. 1841, seq.). But the whole story is plainly unhistorical, even apart from the significant fact that there is no external testimony to its authenticity. For in Eusebius the emperor's exasperation is provoked, not, as in the legend, by a refusal to abjure Christianity and to sacrifice to his gods, but by a refusal to gratify his guilty passion; and the punishment inflicted is merely exile, not torture and death. Even Baronius, who suggests emendations to make the legend more probable, hesitates to accept it as historical, while his commentator, with Tillemont and Baillet, abandons altogether the hopeless attempt to reconcile Simeon Metaphrastes with Eusebius.

The martyrdom of St. Catharine is commemorated in the Latin and Greek calendars on Nov. 25; the discovery ("invention") of her body on Mount Sinai on May 13 in the French Martyrology (Baillet, u.s.). In England her festival was promoted from the 2nd class (on which field labour, though no other servile work, was permitted) to the 1st class of holy-days in 13th cent. (Conc. Oxon. a.d. 1222, c. 8; Conc. Vigorn. a.d. 1240, c. 54), and retained as a black-letter day at the Reformation. It was left untouched in Germany at the retrenchment of holidays in a.d. 1540. In France it was gradually abolished as a holiday, although the office was retained in 17th cent. (Baillet, u.s.). In Europe during the middle ages her name was held in great reverence. Louis IX. of France erected in Paris a costly church in her name; and the famous Maid of Orleans claimed her special favour and tutelage (Martin, u.s.). The head of St. Catharine was alleged to be preserved in her church in the Piazza of St. Peter's at Rome. She was regarded generally as the patron saint of schools, probably from the tradition of her learned controversy with the philosophers at Alexandria. A semi-monastic order, the Knights of Mount Sinai or of Jerusalem, instituted in Europe a.d. 1063 in honour of St. Catharine, under the rule of St. Basil, bound themselves by vows to chastity, though not to celibacy (castità conjugale), to entertain pilgrims, and in rotation, each for two years, to guard the holy relics. Their dress was a white tunic, and embroidered on it a broken wheel, armed with spikes, in memory of the jagged wheel on which, according to the legend, the saint was racked, and which was miraculously shattered by divine interposition. The order became extinct after the fall of Constantinople; but in the 17th cent. the Basilian monks at Paris gave the badge of the order to any candidates who would take the vow of chastity and of obedience to the rule of St. Basil (Moroni, Dizion. Eccles. Reference to Giustiniani, Hist. Chronol. d. Ordini Equestri, p. 121; Bonami, Catalogo d. Ord. Equest. p. 21).

See Tillem. Mém. eccl.; Baronius (Caesar), Annales Ecclesiastici (Barri Ducis, 1864, 4to, tom. iii.); Bollandus Joannes, Les Actes des saints, etc. (Lyons, Besançon, 1865, 8vo, Nov. 25); Life of St. Catharine, with its Latin original from the Cotton MSS., ed. with Intro., etc., by E. Einenkel (Lond. 1884); Life and Martyrdom of St. Cath. of Alex. (Roxburghe Club, No. 90, Lond. 1884).

[I.G.S.]