Depictions of St. Catherine include the following: a book (she was a scholar,) a spiked wheel (she was tortured on such a device,) a sword (she was beheaded,) and a palm branch (symbolizing martyrdom--and the victory of the Spirit over the flesh) She is often depicted wearing a crown given to her by Christ in glory in heaven. She is often clothed in the color red symbolizing a martyr's violent death.
According to an ancient legend, Catherine is believed to have been born in the early 2nd Century in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. As a young woman she was overcome by a vision of the Madonna and the Christ Child who convinced her to become a Christian. She studied religious and secular texts becoming a philosopher and skilled defender of the faith.
One day, Maxentius the Emperor, ordered her to appear before him to debate his pagan philosophers. She confounded them all, but the emperor, embarrassed by her victory, had her brutally lashed.
To the amazement of many, she endured her wounds silently keeping her eyes toward heaven and God. She was then jailed without food to be starved to death. While imprisoned, a dove brought her food, her wounds were tended by angels, and Christ visited and encouraged her to fight bravely for a crown of glory she would receive.
During her imprisonment, over 200 people came to see her, including Maxentius' wife, Valeria Maximilla. All were converted to the faith and subsequently martyred.
When starvation did not cause her to recant, Maxentius (remarkably) offered to marry her because of her wisdom, faith and strength, but she refused declaring her virginity consecrated to Christ her Lord. He then condemned her to be broken on a spiked wheel, but which broke at her touch.
Finally, Maxentius ordered her to be beheaded, but she, in control of the situation to the end, allowed her execution to continue at her command. Angels transported her body to the mountain adjacent to Mt. Sinai, subsequently named in her honor.
No contemporary record exists of her life. Her experience no doubt reflects the terrible persecution visited upon Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the 2nd Century.
Saint Catherine was one of the most important saints in the religious piety of the late Middle Ages, and arguably considered the most beloved of the virgin martyrs, which included Sts. Agnes, Margaret of Antioch, Barbara, Lucy, Valerie of Limoges and many others. Most notably she appeared to St. Joan of Arc. An inspiration to those of faith and education who bear witness to Christ, St. Catherine is the traditional patron of Balliol College, Oxford; the country of Malta, teachers, learners, young women, potters, spinners, philosophers, librarians, jurists, and other institutions and professions.
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