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.
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.