There is no historical evidence of the life of the Great Martyress Catherine. The earliest account of her Martyrdom dates back to the 8th – 9th centuries. All known copies of her Martyrdom are believed to have been made from the Greek original dating not earlier than the 7th century.

According to the narratives, St. Catherine was the daughter of governor of Alexandria in Egypt. The girl was exceedingly beautiful and intelligent. She studied medicine, philosophy and rhetoric, spoke in many languages and was familiar with the Antique literature. During the persecutions under the Roman Emperor Maxentius the girl visited the emperor attempting to convince him of the falsehood of paganism. The emperor invited best philosophers to dispute with her but Catherine won the debate. The enraged emperor ordered that the philosophers be burned alive and Catherine subjected to torture on the spiked breaking wheel. But the wheel miraculously broke into pieces as soon as the saint was tied to it. Many of those who witnessed it believed in Christ, including the emperor’s wife who visited the saint in prison, escorted by two hundred soldiers under the command of general Porphirius. All the soldiers converted to Christianity, too. Seeing that, the emperor ordered to behead the great martyress. Saint Catherine, seeing people mourning her, began to pray that the Lord give earthly goods, remission of sins and the eternal life after death to all those feeling for her. According to legend, after the execution had been over, milk flowed from her veins instead of blood. Angels carried St. Catherine’s body on a mount near the Sinai Monastery of the Holy Virgin and the Unburnt Bush. In the 9th century they were miraculously uncovered by monks and who initially housed them in a small church built atop the mountain. In the late 12th – early 13th century, the saint’s relics were transferred to a cathedral church in the monastery that was later named Monastery of the Great Martyress Catherine.

The early redactions of the saint’s martyrdom say nothing about the baptism of Catherine. The accounts of the wedding between St. Catherine and the Infant Christ first appeared in 15th century Western European hagiographies of the saint. This theme would subsequently become widespread in Eastern Christianity.

In Byzantine and Russian medieval art St. Catherine is portrayed wearing lavishly decorated royal attire, with a liripipe thereupon, with a crown on her head and a cross in the hand. The earliest surviving image of St. Catherine is located in the St. Sebastian catacomb in Rome (8th – 11th century). The earliest image of the saint in Rus is represented in the paintings of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev (the 1040s).

In the 16th century on Crete icons there appeared two more variants of St. Catherine’s image. The first variant depicts the saint full-length, holding a palm branch in the right hand and resting her left hand on the breaking wheel, which in some versions is depicted lying at her feet. The second variant depicts St. Catherine enthroned, also with a palm branch and a wheel, such as an icon by the master Jeremiah Palladas, painted for the Sinai Monastery in 1612.

In the 16th century Russian iconography St. Catherine was commonly depicted frontally, holding a cross and a scroll inscribed with the words of the prayer the saint had said before death. This is exactly how the saint is featured on a hanging cloth The Great Martyress Catherine of the first third of the 16th century from the collection of the Moscow Kremlin Museum. One more variant – The Great Martyress Catherine Praying for People – is not encountered in Byzantine and post-Byzantine art. These iconographic variants appeared in Rus owing to the fact that St. Catherine was venerated as patroness of people on the threshold of death.

In the 18th century there appeared images of the saint entitled The Wedding of the Great Martyress Catherine following Western European artistic examples.

The Holy 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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