I am disappointed to find that St. Catherine of Alexandria is another Saint that the Church in the late 1960s decided was not a real person, or at least the legends about her were historically undocumented. Her popularity plummeted. But still, in the middle ages she was very popular and was said to have appeared to Joan of Arc. She is now described as an exemplary person rather than a historical one, although the Church has not denied her existence or sainthood, just the authenticity of any texts about her. Spin that one around on the wheel in your brain.
The wheel turned quite literally. I very much like that Robert Place used her on the Wheel of Fortune, as her legend is certainly one that has fallen out of favour and sunk, as the wheel of history and scholarly examination of Church texts turned.
My first memory of this Saint was in a song by XTC called Then She Appeared where they sang:
“I was a little dazzled
Catherine wheeled and senses frazzled.”
There is something very compelling about the Catherine Wheel, it turns up frequently in songs, books, knitting patterns, even fireworks are named after the Catherine Wheel. Rose windows in stained glass are sometimes called Catherine Wheels. She meant so much to people once upon a time.
Some legends say she was martyred, or they attempted to martyr her, on a single wheel, others say four wheels. It worked either as an instrument to break someone’s limbs as they were lashed to the wheel and clubbed through the gaps, or a way to display a body (similar to crucifixion) after someone’s limbs were broken and then inserted in the wheel spokes, or it could be turned to pull and break the limbs depending on the configuration. For this reason it was called the breaking wheel before it became associated with St. Catherine.
Catherine’s wheel was said to spark, hence the fireworks development I suppose. The wheel broke by divine intervention, and they had to resort to beheading her. She seems to have also had a great spark of exceptional logic, because she is supposed to have converted 50 scholars to Christianity who had been sent by the Emperor to dissuade her from belief in Christ. Apparently one of the Roman Emperors did not take kindly to her obvious intellectual fortitude and had the scholars burned alive for their adoption of the new faith.
I did notice one thing in stories of Catherine–some say the Emperor was Maximinus, some say Maximian, some say his son Maxentius. Robert Place has cited Maximinus. Let us discuss this wonderful puzzle.
There seems to be some confusion about Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus Herculius (c. 250 – c. July 310), commonly referred to as Maximian and Caius Valerius Daja Maximinus emperor from 310 to 313 who was appointed after Maximian abdicated, and Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius son of Maximian (who was eventually killed by Constantine). The tetrarchy of the Roman emperors around this period gets a bit confusing. Maximinus seems to have been appointed emperor (or co-emperor more accurately) because they bypassed Maxentius when his father resigned–no one liked Maxentius.
A short time after this one of the co-emperor titles passed to Constantine on his father’s death. The precedent was now there for Maxentius to take his father’s title which had been passed to Maximinus, however they still didn’t want Maxentius so he had to usurp the tile that was rightfully his, and was accepted in some regions but not all, and thus became an unrecognized fifth emperor. Eventually he and Maximinus got together and went against Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius, and there was a war. Constantine and Maxentius met and Maxentius was killed. Licinius defeated Maximinus who them killed himself.
So there you go, are we all clear on this now?
It would seem that any one of these three emperors could be associated with St. Catherine although the two younger fellows seem more likely as Maximinus was a pagan and hated Christians and had them sacrificed to pagan gods and sent to mines and quarries. Maxentius seems to have hated everybody and in turn been hated, but wasn’t vilified as a Christian killer until later under the propaganda of Constantine. Which one was the guy who had 50 scholars, his wife, and St. Catherine killed for their conversion to Christianity?
I love this bit from Place after describing Catherine’s commitment as a virgin and “Bride of Christ,” he outlines Maximinus’s lecherous proposal to her and says “She, of course, was already married to a husband more wise and powerful than Maximinus, and his monstrous behaviour did not win her affection.” Very dry humour that, and Place is in the Maximinus camp obviously, so I’ll go with him there. In my opinion though, since Catherine seems to lack authentication, the association of her with any ONE particular emperor might be open to question. It all seems somewhat apocryphal to me; all three were bloodthirsty and in that territory of the Empire during a short period when she was there. Emperors never last, they die and morph into bloodthirsty archetypes.
In the book, Place has some interesting historical information on the general meaning of Fortuna’s Wheel and how it made it into medieval symbolism. It’s a bit like the Buddhist wheel of life with endless cycles of death and rebirth, with three foolish characters going up and down. One day you’re up and the next day you’re down. Like John Prine says, “That’s the way that the world goes ’round.”
But that’s good if you’re down! See the four winds on the card blow from the cardinal directions? Things are always changing.
And the devotional card from the Patron Saints book, which is pretty.