November 25: In Celebration of St Catherine of Alexandria
Every November 25 I honour a feast day in recognition of St Catherine of Alexandria. Though my family were Presbyterians, a denomination which does not celebrate or recognise the calendar of saints, also known as feast days of the Christian year, my mother would surprise me with something special, a little slice of cake from my favourite bakery, a book, or even just a card; all were given in honour of St Catherine. To this day I still associate my saint’s day with my mother and the way she would show her love for me in the name of my saint. Yet, in spite of this, during my youth I knew nothing of her apart from the fact that I shared her name. That changed when I began studying art history in earnest at graduate school. Suddenly St Catherine appeared everywhere; illuminated in breviaries, gilded in icons, sylphic in altarpieces. I became devoted to the chaste saint, for her work as a scholar and her unwavering commitment to her Christian faith.
St Catherine’s iconography, popularized in later medieval and Renaissance depictions of her, is easy to spot when reading a tableau, especially one depicting the Virgin and Child with Saints. She is almost always represented from the Middle Ages onwards alongside or holding a piece of the torture device used to try and kill her: the spiked wheel, also known as the Catherine Wheel. Her legend says that she did not die on the wheel, but instead it shattered upon coming into contact with her. Catherine’s martyrdom and death would later come from her beheading, and to this day there is debate among scholars as to whether she even truly existed. Regardless of whether she was a real person or an amalgamation of early Christian women who were martyred for their faith, her attributes gave rise to her medieval cult and even to the formation of a monastery named for her at the base of Mt Sinai, where it was claimed that her remains were discovered some 500 years after she died. Throughout England and France shrines commemorating her were erected in the Middle Ages, in some cases, they even contained her relics.
What makes St Catherine’s Day this year so significant to me is that it also marks the release date for Queen of Heaven. This is made all the more relevant given how the story intersects the lives of the main character Lady Isabelle, who is a scholar and mystic devoted in her love of God, with that of the Queen of Heaven herself, Mary, Mother of God. I am heartened to think that as I invoke the blessing of my patron saint upon a work that is meant to help educate as much as entertain, maybe, just maybe she will find a way to intervene from her sainted place in heaven. That is, if she isn’t too distracted by what my mother is working on to surprise me with this year.