The stories concerning St. Catherine have not been verified in ways that the worldly mind will accept as certain; the legends have, therefore, been dismissed as historically worthless---and as a consequence, many scholars consider Catherine herself a fiction.
Catherine was a maiden of Alexandria. The Golden Legend relates that she was of royal parentage, the daughter of King Costus of Cililia and Princess Sabinella of Samaria. Legends which do not claim such an exalted origin declare that she was nobly born and do not name her parents or mention their rank. She was, from all accounts, well-versed in all the arts and sciences. In addition to having acquired knowledge, she had also acquired great wisdom, far beyond her teen-aged years.
Some say that she was converted to Christianity in the course of her wide-ranging studies, while others offer another account. She was sent at 17 to Armenia, where she publicized her intent to marry, if she could find a bridegroom as handsome, as learned, and as wise as she. A hermit named Ananias found the only suitable bridegroom for her: Christ. The solitary did not reveal her intended's identity but instructed her to pray to the Theotokos that she be allowed to see Mary's son. The next day the hermit explained to Catherine that Christ rejected her as ugly because of her vanity. Catechized and baptized, Catherine again besought a vision of the Son of Mary, who accepted the now humble woman joyfully. He is said also to have presented her with a ring as a token of their mystical marriage. This marriage became a spiritual prototype and has been a popular subject in Western religious art. Although the stories of her conversion vary in specific detail, all agree that the vision of the Theotokos with Christ as a child was central to Catherine's metanoia and faith.
Around the time that Catherine was eighteen, the emperor (Maximinus in some accounts, Maxentius in others) decreed that all Roman citizens must sacrifice to the gods. The order may have been a ploy to bring out and persecute Christians or a means by which the caesar offered thanksgiving for recent victories. Sorrowful that many Christians were apostatizing, Catherine rebuked the emperor and argued by logic and mysticism that Christianity is the true faith. Unable to refute her arguments, the emperor summoned fifty philosophers to debate the maiden. In the course of her statements, Catherine demonstrated that the pagan Greek poets and philosophers point to Christ. (Similarities between this speech as recorded in the Golden Legend and the Menaion of the Emperor Basil and speeches in the writings of Justin Martyr and in Barlaam and Joasaph suggest to scholars that this is not a transcript of Catherine's arguments.) The fifty philosophers converted to Christianity and were burnt for their failure to achieve their appointed task.
The king then proposed marriage to the adamant virgin. When she refused him, he ordered her killed on a spiked wheel, which now bears her name. After the wheel disintegrated and left Catherine unharmed, the emperor ordered that she be beaten and imprisoned without food in the expectation that the physical discomforts would humble her. A dove is said to have fed her while she was in prison. The empress and an army officer, out of curiosity, visited Catherine in her cell. Both saw angels ministering to her and were converted, as were the soldiers who guarded the maiden and those soldiers whom Porphyrius, the stratopedarches, commanded. All were martyred when the emperor received the news of their conversion.
Furious, the ruler decreed that Catherine must be beheaded. When her head was severed, milk (or a white substance) flowed from her body instead of blood. She is reported to have died c. 305. Angels are said to have transported her body from Alexandria to Mount Sinai, where it lay hidden until the ninth century. The monastery, built on the site of Moses' burning bush, took her name after the discovery of her body and has treasured her relics.
Eusebius, in the fourteenth chapter of Book VIII of his Church History, relates the story of a young woman in Alexandria who resisted Emperor Maximinus' lecherous advances. She was the scion of a good family and possessed wealth and education. He exiled her and confiscated her property but was never able to break her will. Although she was not martyred, some scholars have suggested that this woman is St. Catherine.
The saint has a secular counterpart in Hypatia, the daughter of the Alexandrine philosopher and mathematician, Theonas. She also had a reputation for great and wide learning. Medieval accounts say that she was also very comely; modern scholars believe that she was forty at the time of her death. She wrote treatises on mathematics and taught philosophy and astronomy. Among her pupils was Synesius, a pagan who later became bishop of Ptolemais. (Contemporary scholars believe that his conversion was a political expedient so that he could enjoy the power of the office.) Having come to believe that Hypatia had turned the pagan prefect of Alexandria against Christians, a mob, led by Peter the Reader, murdered the neo-Platonist scholar in 415. Although no evidence suggests that Patriarch/St. Cyril of Alexandria incited the mob or is directly responsible for her death, stories that he killed her persist. Legends that she was slain because she was a female philosopher abound, although history indicates that her particular beliefs and possible anti-Christian activity caused the mob to attack and murder her.
The reputations of Catherine and Hypatia for scholarship may be unusual but are not wholly exceptional; a small number of women did study at the Mouseion of Alexandria. The retellings of the lives of these two female scholars have, through the centuries, been reshaped to conform to contemporary literary genres or to prevailing intellectual prejudices. Our inability to find scientific or historical documentation to satisfy the limits of our understanding does not point to the creation or invention of fictional characters. Rather, we reveal a lack of humility, the cornerstone of true understanding that emboldened and sustained Catherine.
Return to Main Page