Memory of Saint Catherine of Alexandria

November 25th 2014

Caravaggio (Milan 1571 – Porto Ercole  1610), Saint Catherine of Alexandria, around 1598,
oil on canvas, cm 173 x 133, Madrid, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum


Catherine is a pretty Christian young woman who lives in Alexandria, Egypt with her noble and rich family. When in 305 the Roman governor Massimino Daia arrives in town, splendid feasts are organized and the new governor invites his subjects to offer sacrifices to pagan deities.

When Catherine appears before the mighty, not only she refuses to offer incense to deities, but invites the governor to convert to Christianity. The governor convenes some priests to convince the young woman; they not only do not succeed, but even they convert to Christianity.

Then the governor proposes to the young women, in return of conversion, she could become his wife.

At the umpteenth refusal he condemns her to a horrible death: mangling her body by a large toothed wheel. But the wheel breaks miraculously and then the young woman is beheaded. According to the tradition her body is picked up by the angels and carried up the mountain of Moses, the Sinai, where afterwards they will rise up the very famous monastery dedicated to her which still exists.

The cult of the saint had a huge diffusion and she is one of the most depicted.

The canvas of Caravaggio is clearly symbolic. It shows in fact the saint with all the features linked to her event: the big toothed wheel behind her and the young woman leans against. The sword she was beheaded with in her hand, the palm of martyrdom is set on the cushion she is kneeled on.  The richness of the folds of her dress tells us of the noble condition of her family. Her gaze turned towards the spectator seems to catch his attention to let him share in her event. The powerful light which descends from the top, on the right side, and invests the figure of the young woman, tells us how she is by this time, in the divine dimension, in the beatitude reserved to those who have been able to witness Christ till the gift of their life in the martyrdom.