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The Martyrdom of St. Catherine. Oil on canvas by Jan Provost, 1500's.

Catherine was the only daughter of King Costus in the city of Alexandria. She became a Christian as a girl and at the age of eighteen she decided to take on the Emperor Maxentius in defense of her religion. Angered by the sights of Christians who were being made to sacrifice to the Pagan Gods, Catherine went to the Emperor's palace saying, " Both the dignity of your rank and the dictates of reason counsel me, Emperor, to present my greetings to you if you were to acknowledge the Creator of the Heavens and renounce the worship of false gods." Maxentius was shocked and amazed that a mere woman would speak to him thus, but he was impressed by her grace, eloquence and learning, and thoroughly charmed by her great beauty.

A learned man himself, he argued with her at great length but was unable to best her in debate. He then summoned wise and worldly men from all corners of the world to debate with Catherine, offering great fame and wealth to any who could defeat her arguments. One by one, each was reduced to silence by her clear and unquestionable reason and faith. All were converted to Christianity on the spot.

Enraged, the Emperor had all the learned men executed and turned at once on the virgin Catherine. Still besotted by her beauty, he began by offering her wealth and a place by his side in the palace, if she would renounce her faith.

When Catherine refused she was beaten and imprisoned alone in a dark cell for twelve days and left to starve. During this time, Maxentius's queen began to secretly visit the virgin and she and two hundred soldiers were converted. When the Emperor heard of this he had all his guard martyred. Maxentius then ordered a great machine to be built with four wheels studded with iron saws and sharp pointed nails. Two wheels would turn in one direction and two in the opposite direction. The virgin was to be torn apart by these terrible instruments, thus terrorizing the rest of the Christians with the example of her awful death. The queen tried to intervene and was herself martyred. Soldiers were commanded to cut off the breasts of the queen and to behead her.

Catherine prayed for the Lord to destroy the machine and instantly an angel appeared and smote the machine so mightily, that not only was it destroyed, but four thousand pagan were killed. Maxentius then ordered Catherine to be beheaded and milk flowed from the virgin's wounds.

Little is known historically about Catherine's dates or life and the Church has declared her story to be legend, rather than fact. Her story, however, is featured in many collections of the lives of the saints written in the medieval period including The Golden Legend of 1260. Like many other fourth century virgin martyrs such as St. Blaise, Catherine's cult and shine enjoyed great popularity throughout the Middle Ages. She is often depicted flanking the Virgin Mary herself. Catherine's shrines stretched from London and Rouen to Mount Sinai, the remotest of medieval shrines. Badges of Catherine often depict a crowned woman holding a wheel, for her suffering, a book for her learning and a palm frond representing her martyrdom. Often, just the wheel is used and "Catherine Wheels" were worn by her devotees all across Europe. She was particularly popular with students, spinners, potters and wheelwrights. Her legend is often confused with saints of the same name and her tale was continually embellished throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Her feast day was November 25th until it was struck from the official Church calendar in 1969.

St. Catherine Badge
Fettered Cock Pewters

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