Saint of the week
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Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Catherine was born in Alexandria and raised a pagan, but converted to Christianity in her late teens. It is said that she visited her contemporary, the Roman Emperor Maxentius, and attempted to convince him of the moral error in persecuting Christians. She succeeded in converting his wife, the Empress, and many pagan philosophers whom the Emperor sent to dispute with her, all of whom were subsequently martyred. Upon the failure of the Emperor to win Catherine over, he ordered her to be put in prison; and when the people who visited her converted, she was condemned to death on the breaking wheel, an instrument of torture. According to legend, the wheel itself broke when she touched it, so she was beheaded.
According to Christian tradition, angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where, in the 6th century, the Eastern Emperor Justinian established Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, the church being built between 548 and 565 in Saint Catherine, Egypt, on the Sinai Peninsula.
Her principal symbol is the spiked wheel, which has become known as the Catherine Wheel, and her feast day is celebrated on 25 November by most Christian churches. However, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates it on 24 November, because Empress Catherine the Great did not wish to share her patronal feast with the Leavetaking of the feast of the Presentation of the Theotokos.
Because she was Catherine the Great’s patron, the Catholic Church of Saint Catherine, one of the first Roman Catholic churches built in Russia, was named after Catherine of Alexandria.
Saint Catherine was one of the most influential saints in the religious culture of the late middle ages, and arguably considered the most important of the virgin-martyrs. Her power as an intercessor was renowned, and firmly established in most versions of her legend, in which she specifically entreats God at the moment of her death to answer the prayers of those who invoke her name.
From the Orthodox Liturgy the Akathist Hymn To Holy Great Martyr Catherine of Alexandria:
With songs of praise let us hymn Catherine, the bride of Christ, the virgin martyr chosen from the imperial house and crowned in heaven; for she is the most glorious vanquisher of the tyrant, the most wise instructor of philosophers, and a guide to Christ for many. As thou hast boldness before the Lord, O great martyr Catherine, mercifully incline Him to the right needful petitions of those who cry out to thee: Rejoice, O Catherine, most wise bride of Christ!
O holy great martyr Catherine! Receiving this hymn of praise, never cease to pray to the Lord in our behalf, that He deliver us from our enemies, visible and invisible; and by thy right acceptable mediation vouchsafe unto us the everlasting kingdom, that with thee we may chant unto God: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”
The illustration is of the painting ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ by Raphael, (c1507).
© The National Gallery. London
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