Typical fireworks are known as Roman Candle, Fountains and Rockets with self-explanatory names. Yet, the origins of the spinning firework from which sparks fly off in all directions known as the Catherine Wheel go back over a thousand years ago.
This was a particularly cruel method of torture; the charged would be strapped to a wheel and their limbs beaten with an iron cudgel so that their unsupported bones between the spokes would be shattered. It was a extremely slow and painful method, with the victim often taking up to three days to expire. But when Catherine touched the wheel it shattered injuring bystanders. The Emperor had her beheaded, when milk flowed from her severed head instead of blood.
|St Catherine with the Wheel|
Detail from Chapter House, Haughmond Abbey
Her cult began in the 9th century with the rediscovery of her relics at the foot of Mount Sinai where her body was transported by Angels, the site of Saint Catherine's Monastery becoming a place of pilgrimage. The cult built up around this legend and flourished throughout Europe in the Middle Ages from Crusader influence. In England her cult was as strong as anywhere in the West with over sixty churches dedicated to Saint Catherine. Yet vigorous research has failed to identify Catherine with any historical personage.
However, Catherine is ranked one of the fourteen most helpful Saints in Heaven. She is commonly depicted with her symbol, the spiked wheel, and commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on 25th November.
Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson
David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Fifth Edition Revised, OUP, 2011.
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