St Catherine of Alexandria and the Language of Sainthood

St Catherine of Alexandria

St Catherine of Alexandria is no longer as fashionable a saint as she was in the Middle Ages, when she gave her name to colleges in Oxford and Cambridge and appeared in rood screens and stained glass windows of dazzling beauty. I think that rather gives the lie to the notion that the Middle Ages were a benighted backwater in our history, full of the worst kind of patriarchy. Catherine was admired for standing up to the emperor Maxentius and his abuse of power, even though it led to her torture and execution. She was seen for what she was — a brave woman, supremely confident in her faith — and revered for that. The artist who painted the scene above certainly managed to capture both Catherine’s confidence and the emperor’s discomfort. He may have thought he had won by having her executed, but she was the true victor in the contest.

Sometimes the language we use reveals more than we think it does. For example, when we speak of emigrants, exiles and ex-pats, we may be referring to the same people, but our language suggests a different stance towards them. Emigrant is a fairly neutral term for those who have chosen to leave their homeland, usually in search of a better life. When they arrive in their hoped-for new country, they are transformed into immigrants, which is not always so neutral; but if they are lucky enough to have sufficient wealth at their disposal, they are, of course, ex-pats. If they left their homeland as result of force majeure or under circumstances we think tragic, they are exiles. This simple illustration may help to explain something I find odd about the way Catherine of Alexandria is perceived today.

The language of hagiography has several themes, and in the case of women saints, the rigid categorisation into virgins, widows and martyrs (which has left the married in what used to be known, deplorably, as nec, nec). In the case of Catherine of Alexandria, I think I detect something of a shift in the language used about her which indicates why she is less popular now than she once was. We have become nervous about the historicity of her legend, so the fact of her martyrdom is glossed over. She has been downgraded, so to say, from a woman who spoke her mind and paid the price for it, a martyr saint, to one of those countless virgins who sing the praises of God but don’t, apparently, do much else. Her life on earth may still be described as exile from heaven but it has lost much of its original vigour.

It would be good to recover the sense of Catherine of Alexandria as a martyr, someone who stood up to the abuse of power, a worthy role model for men and women everywhere. What do you think?

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8 thoughts on “St Catherine of Alexandria and the Language of Sainthood”

  1. History repeats itself constantly. The lack of respect by rulers for and the protection and wellbeing of all of their inhabitants has too often been the cause of pain and misery for millions of people throughout history. The triangular slave trade, Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and others, the recent demonisation of Latino and Muslim migrants by Donald Trump and of undocumented first and second generation migrants by recent Conservative governments are but the tip of the iceberg of systemic hate perpetuated to sustain rulers in power but in negation of God’s love for everyone….

  2. She has been downgraded to light italics in our Calendar! but there is leeway to bump the celebration up a bit – eg for a patronal festival (predictive text predicted wrongly that I wanted ‘paternal’) ….. but it would be an excellent thing if she could be commemorated as the person she was!

  3. If an Anglican may be allowed to have an opinion – St Catherine is my patron saint. You can tell by the empty gin glass beside me on this her feast day. For reasons I can now not quite recall – and it’s not just because of the gin, it was a long time ago – she captured my imagination and in my undergraduate history notes there are scattered Latin sentences from prayers and lyrics mentioning her. Blessed Catherine of the Wheel is my friend in heaven, and, I would hope, pleads for me before the throne of grace! As you say, once upon a time she was very busy indeed but I think the hours may weigh heavier on her hands these days, thanks to her demotion. She has always been in the Anglican calendar, though.

    • Anyone may express an opinion on this blog, provided it’s done with civility; and a G & T is no obstacle to that, I trust. I think philosophers with a religious bent are still fond of St Catherine. She is a Good Egg. May she pray for you and all of us.

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