1740: Not William Duell 1919: Felipe Angeles

Feast Day of St. Catherine of the Wheel

November 25th, 2007 Headsman

This date annually is the feast of iconic — perhaps mythological — Christian martyr Saint Catherine, said to have been put to death in the 4th century for her faith.

St. Catherine in a 700-year-old stained glass at St. Mary’s Church of Deerhurst. Image courtesy of the Sacred Destinations Travel Guide.

One of the most popular Catholic saints, St. Catherine was reputed to have been a beautiful young maiden of Alexandria — so wise as to convert every pagan scholar sent to dispute her, so devoted as to be mystically betrothed to Christ.

Catherine was condemned by one of the last pagan rulers of Rome to torture on a breaking wheel, which shattered when it touched her — so she was simply beheaded. (The story is related in didactic iconography in this triptych.)

Despite this inauspicious debut, the breaking wheel was Catherine’s iconic attribute, by which her frequent appearances in devotional art can be recognized.

This gruesome instrument of torture was also known as the “Catherine wheel” in medieval Europe, from which English derives the deceptively winsome-sounding name of a firework.

The saint became the patron of those condemned to this horrific death as well as a diverse swath of the wider society: wheelwrights, mechanics, and other laborers who worked with wheels for apparent reasons; teachers, philosophers and scribes for her learning; girls, virgins and young maids for her purity. Single women seeking husbands still offer her supplication:

St. Catherine, St. Catherine, O lend me thine aid
And grant that I never may die an old maid.
A husband, St. Catherine.
A handsome one, St. Catherine.
A rich one, St. Catherine.
A nice one, St. Catherine.
And soon, St. Catherine.

Catholic recountings of the saint’s legend can be read here and here. More St. Catherine’s Day customs are enumerated here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Egypt,Execution,Executions Survived,God,Gruesome Methods,Intellectuals,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,The Supernatural,Women

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7 thoughts on “Feast Day of St. Catherine of the Wheel”

  1. Headsman says:

    One wonders why the axe didn’t break, either

    It may have been a matter of inadequate QA on a beta product. They had a well-tested tool with a simple user interface to fall back on.

  2. jeff says:

    “Despite this inauspicious debut, the breaking wheel was Catherine’s iconic attribute[.]”

    Au contraire! It was *because* of the inauspicious debut! One wonders why the axe didn’t break, either, but that misses the point, doesn’t it? The wheel is the symbol of her power — or, technically, of God’s power manifest in her. Notice the headsman’s axe disappears into obscurity, probably to the point where no one bothers to remember how she was actually killed, or even whether she was actually killed. If you see my point.

    Good stuff. imo.

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