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In the centre of the panel Saint Catherine is shown sitting on a silver throne. Her feet rest upon a footstool. Her head is slightly tilted as she gazes solemnly towards the viewer. She is dressed in a red and gold imperial robe including a crown and over her shoulders is a richly ornamented Venetian brocade cloak lined with grey fur. Her left hand rests upon a spiked wheel and also holds a staff topped with a gold cross. In her right hand she is holding a large palm of martyrdom. An open Gospel rests on the arm of the throne and books are scattered on the green ground along with a compass; while a spherical astrolabe (or armillary sphere) can be seen on the floor just beneath the wheel. Two angels on clouds hover around the saint’s head each holding banners.
St Catherine is one of the most important saints in Christianity – an early martyr whose relics are held at the Orthodox Monastery on Mount Sinai, which is named after Catherine. Along with Mount Athos, St Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai is the most significant centre of Orthodox monasticism in the world.
According to tradition – the earliest source is the Greek Passio (6th-8th c.) - Catherine lived in 3rd - 4th century Alexandria, Egypt, and was born into an aristocratic family – the daughter of the pagan governor of Alexandria. As a result of her wealthy background, Catherine was ‘educated in Greek philosophy and literature, rhetoric, music, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.’ Yet after experiencing a mystical vision of the Mother of God and the Christ-child, Catherine converted to Christianity.
People who identified as Christians were, however, persecuted in Egypt under the Roman emperor Maxentius (d. 312). When Catherine openly protested at the torture and execution of Christians, she was challenged to a debate with 50 pagan scholars. Her persuasive arguments silenced her intellectual adversaries – many of whom subsequently converted to Christianity and were thus immediately executed. Catherine’s ability to successful express Christian truths to pagan intellectuals explains the books and spherical astrolabe – a symbol of knowledge - scattered around the throne. Subsequently, Catherine herself was tortured: at first on a toothed wheel – again an important iconographic attribute - which miraculously broke at her touch, then her breasts were cut off, and finally she was beheaded. The Passio states that milk flowed from her wounds instead of blood. Her body was then transported by angels to Mount Sinai where her relics are still housed. These episodes from her life – along with others – can be seen in Vita icons of the saint, such as the early 15th century version on Sinai (fig. a).
Before the 16th century icons of Catherine showed her in Byzantine imperial vestments, standing facing the viewer and holding a cross (fig. a). In the 17th century there emerges a new Cretan type – which ours follows. The earliest known version of the Cretan variation is by Jeremiah Palladas (fig. b) – where Catherine is shown enthroned, wearing Venetian dress, holding a wheel and surrounded by astronomical objects.
The paraphernalia of secular wisdom – especially the antique books and astronomical instruments – that surround Catherine in the icon recall Albrecht Durer’s well-known 16th century engraving of Melancholia (fig. c). As a 17th century Cretan iconography, it would not be surprising to find influences from the western Renaissance traditions.
But unlike Durer’s design here the protagonist, although solemn, is still triumphant on a throne. The fact that these objects of secular and scientific knowledge are scattered on the ground in the icon (while the Gospel is open and placed upon the throne) indicates a hierarchy of knowledge: Christian truth – symbolised by the open Gospel, as well as the palm of martyrdom and the cross – is here understood as a more profound type of wisdom than its secular counterparts. If Durer’s angelic personification of melancholia is overcome by the inexhaustible riddles of knowledge, Catherine has here, alternatively, overcome knowledge itself through martyrdom, just as Christ has ‘overcome the world’ (John 16:33). In Jeremiah Palladas’ icon of Christ Enthroned, which is placed directly next to his icon of Catherine on the iconostasis in the main church of the Holy Monastery at Sinai, Christ’s feet rest upon a spherical cosmos (also diagrammatic in design), explicitly echoing the way the wheel and the cross tower over the astronomical instrument in the icon of Catherine next to it (see details below).
The style of the current version indicates a 17th century Cretan origin. For example, a comparable work on this subject from this period can be seen in the Benaki Museum in Athens (fig. d).