The hagiographic cycles of the Great Martyress Catherine are rarely encountered in Byzantine art. Their development is believed to have taken place in the Sinai Monastery, in a church to which the saint’s relics had been transferred in the late 12th – early 13th century. Out of this monastery came the earliest surviving image of St. Catherine with border scenes of her Life dating back to the 13th century. These hagiographic cycles commonly included the following scenes: the blessing of the Archangel Michael, the dispute with philosophers, torture, the emperor’s wife and two hundred soldiers with the general converting to Christianity, the execution of St. Catherine and the emperor’s wife and angels carrying St. Catherine’s body on a mount near the Sinai Monastery.
In Russian medieval art, hagiographic cycles are encountered since the early 16th century. In terms of the scenes’ composition, the Russian hagiographic cycles resemble the early Sinai icons. But the iconography of the scenes has no parallels with Byzantine and post-Byzantine art. Scholars link the appearance of the hagiographic icons in Rus to the veneration of St. Catherine as patroness of the dead people’s souls. This explains the inclusion in border scenes or in the central panel the scene depicting St. Catherine praying for the people, such as an icon of St. Catherine Praying for the People, with Life Scenes dating back to the 1530-40s, from the collection of M.E.Elizavetin.
In the 18th century, after St. Dimitry Rostovsky had revised the St. Catherine hagiography and included in it a Western European story of the miraculous wedding of the saint with the Infant Christ, the Russian hagiographic cycles of the saint became to be produced with one or two more scenes depicting this legend. Thus, the hagiographic cycle of St. Catherine traced her life from birth to a martyr’s death, such as the painting of the lower tier of the Church of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God, executed in 1756-57 by a team of Yaroslavl icon-painters led by Afanasy and Ivan Shustovs.
The Great Martyress Catherine is commemorated on December 7 (November 24, O.S.).
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
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