A Bride of Christ and a Beheading: Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria is my name-saint, so I always stop to remember her on her Feast Day even though sadly I don’t come from the kind of family where you celebrate your name-saint’s feast with honey-cakes and sparklers. But this year, I am seeing things in Catherine’s story that I never thought to notice before – disturbing things, though I don’t think they are there by accident.

Catherine Wheel - Art Institute of Chicago

The miracle of Saint Catherine’s Wheel (Northern Spanish, ca. 1375/1400;  http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/12683)

If you are in the small part of the human population that knows the difference between the different Saint Catherines  – the principal contenders being the great Italian mystics Catherine of Siena (died 1380: feast-day 29 April) and Catherine of Genoa (died 1510; feast 15 September), you will know that Catherine of Alexandria was a fourth-century philosopher-virgin, and that her symbol is the ‘Catherine Wheel’. You may even know the story from the Roman breviary, that blades were lashed to a wheel in order to cut her to pieces. But when she prayed, the wheel itself fell in to pieces and was no use against the power of her prayer. The Catherine Wheel is a familiar symbol, but in a way it has become over-familiar. Most English-speakers, when they think of a Catherine Wheel, think of a popular type of fireworks display, in which sparks fly off from a spinning point in the air.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Engraving by A.F. Girard after G.F. Reverdin.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Engraving by A.F. Girard after G.F. Reverdin (http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/result.html)

What is less well-remembered is that in the end, Catherine died a different death altogether; she was beheaded. A disturbing image from the Wellcome Collections in London offers an artist’s anatomical analysis: the saint extends her neck on the executioner’s block, waiting for the axe. A beheadings is a deeply shocking thing. It is an act of complete and perfect violence. And that fact has has become distressingly vivid in acts of religious violence around the world in recent months.

In fact, the earliest version of Catherine’s life, the Menologion of Emperor Basil II (d. 886) gives only the story of the beheading.

 “The martyr Aikaterina was the daughter of a rich and noble prince of Alexandria. She was very beautiful, and being at the same time highly talented, she devoted herself to Greek literature as well as to the study of the languages of all nations, and so she became wise and learned. And it happened that the Greeks held a festival in honor of their idols; and seeing the slaughter of animals, she was so greatly moved that she went to the King Maximinus and expostulated with him in these words: ‘Why hast thou left the living God to worship lifeless idols?’ But the Emperor caused her to be thrown into prison, and to be punished severely. He then ordered fifty orators to be brought, and bade them to reason with Aikaterina, and confute her, threatening to burn them all if they should fail to overpower her. The orators, however, when they saw themselves vanquished, received baptism, and were burnt forthwith, while she was beheaded.” (translation by Paul Carus; his 1907 study of the early traditions surrounding Catherine is still worth reading.) 

Though there is no certain evidence to prove that Catherine is a real historical figure,it is highly significant that her death is remembered as having happened at a time of civil war.

Her persecutor, Maximinus Daia (d. 313), was a Roman general who staged a military coup and ruled over a kingdom in what is now Turkey, until he was defeated and killed by the emperor Licinius. (Licinius, in turn, was defeated and killed by the Christian Emperor Constantine, but that is another story.) In our own time, it has become increasingly obvious that in a situation of civil war individuals are often singled out for especially brutal treatment, as a way of intimidating others. 

That Catherine was a public teacher of Christianity is not implausible at all. In fact, the most famous case of religiously inspired violence recorded in ancient Alexandira was against a female teacher, Hypatia of Alexandria (d. 415).

One aspect to the tradition that grew up around Catherine is especially illuminating. The medieval versions of her story suggest that Catherine’s mother was already a Christian before her, and that it was at the time when the family was arranging a marriage for her that Catherine found herself in trouble with the authorities.Refusing the human groom offered to her, Catherine declared that she had received a visit from a Queen, who had made her a far better offer: her son, the most beautiful and powerful king the world had ever seen. The Queen, of course, was the Virgin Mary, and Jesus was the Bride-groom.

Many of the ancient martyr narratives involve a child-bride who refuses an arranged marriage – the case of Thecla is the most obvious example, but there are dozens of others.

If you look at that fact in light of recent events, you start to notice that the individuals singled out as victims of religious persecution are frequently either individuals who marry across religious lines, or the children of these marriages.

The recent case of Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag  is a case in point; Mariam’s mother was an Ethiopian Christian divorced from Mariam’s  Muslim father; when the daughter Mariam married a Christian, she was charged with apostasy from Islam, although she had in fact been brought up in her mother’s faith. Considering how the ancient cases shed light on the modern ones, and vice versa, is not a straightforward business, but it is well worth the trouble.

Another modern case illustrates how it is often practical tensions in communities that gives occasion to these explosions of self-righteous violence. As I write, the Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi is awaiting the verdict for her appeal against a sentence of hanging. Her crime, allegedly, was to make an unflattering comparison of Muhammad to Jesus of Nazareth. (One wonders whether her accuser was aware that Jesus himself is recognised as a prophet of Islam, or that the Qur’an explicitly advises Muslims to refrain from conflict with Christians, since the protagonists of ‘religious’ conflict sometimes know very little about the tradition they claim to defend.)

Both sides agree that whatever she said was a response to being attacked by a Muslim co-worker while harvesting berries together; the claim was that she had polluted a well by drinking from it. Bibi’s defenders suggest that the real conflict was a previous dispute over an unrelated incident of property damage. The case then escalated to the point where two government ministers were assassinated, reputedly in order to silence their support for the defendant. We see the same shape in ancient documents. Neighbourhoods and workplaces are often troubled by bullying or other long-term  conflicts, but once the conflict has been ‘re-packaged’ as a religious conflict it is often possible to bring in large numbers of supporters who have no stake in the original dispute. Curiously, these ‘newcomers’ are often the most violent.

It is deeply disturbing to recognise that the kind of horrors described by the ancient martyr accounts probably gave an accurate impression of the kinds of brutality faced by men and women in the ancient world. And it is even more distressing to recognise that equally inhuman treatment is still doled out to minorities all over the world today. It makes perfect sense that when the early Christians thought about these things, they did their best to remind each other that young women, when faced with impossible circumstances, can be capable of extraordinary acts of courage.

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Related Article: The Bride of Christ, the “Male Woman’, and the Female Reader in Late Antiquity


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