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Catherine of Alexandria ( 287 - 305 )  Category ( Religious_Leaders_Figures ) [suggest a correction]

Saint Catherine of AlexandriaSaint Catherine of Alexandria, also known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel, is a fourth-century Christian saint and martyr. She is also regarded as having been a noted scholar of her time. Saint Joan of Arc claimed that Saint Catherine spoke to her. The Orthodox Christian churches venerate her as a "great martyr," while the Roman Catholic Church she is revered as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

What is known of her life story consists of legends that have a number of variations. The most prominent stories claim that Catherine was the daughter of a governor in Alexandria, Egypt. She informed her parents that she would only marry someone whose "beauty was more radiant than the shining of the sun, His wisdom governed all creation..." Shortly after this she received a vision that encouraged her to receive Christian baptism, and was transported to heaven in a vision and betrothed to Christ. Catherine is said to have visited the Roman Emperor of her time (Maxentius) and attempted to convince him to cease Christian persecution. However, the emperor remained unconvinced and imprisoned Catherine. Later she was condemned to death on the breaking wheel (an instrument of torture). However, according to legend, the wheel broke itself when she touched it. She was then beheaded.

Some legends state that her body was then carried by angels to Mount Sinai, where in the sixth century, Emperor Justinian established Saint Catherine's Monastery. The monastery, along with very rare sixth-century icons, survives. Catherine's primary symbol is the spiked wheel, which has become known as the Catherine wheel. Her feast day is celebrated on November 25. Some historians argue that Catherine may not have existed, but is rather an idealized female religious figure. It has been suggested that she was invented specifically as a Christian counterpart to the pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria. Like Hypatia, she is said to have been highly educated, very beautiful, sexually pure, and to have been brutally murdered for publicly stating her beliefs.

Other symbols associated with Saint Catherine include the sword, a crown at her feet, hailstones, bridal veil and ring, dove, and the book. Due to her association with the wheel, she became the emblem of wheelwrights and mechanics. She is also patron saint to young maidens and female students. Looked upon as the holiest and most illustrious of the virgins of Christ after the Virgin Mary, it makes sense that she was deemed worthy to watch over young nuns and unmarried young women. Saint Catherine was a popular subject of medieval and Renaissance artists. Her devotees reached their highest level during the Crusade era, and today she remains a popular saint.

Image: "Saint Catherine of Alexandria" by Caravaggio, c. 1598.

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