Thursday, 5 November 2015

St Catherine and the Wheel

Today is November 5th, Guy Fawkes night, the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, known popularly as Bonfire Night. The first recorded fireworks display in England was in 1486 at the wedding of King Henry VII. The word ‘bonfire’ is said to have its origins in the term 'bone-fire' when the remains of witches and other non-conformists were burned on a pyre as they were not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. Today, traditionally we put a 'guy' on the top of the bonfire, representative of the leader of the Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

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.

The Chapter House, Haughmond Abbey, with carvings of Saints set into the arches.
From left to right, St Augustine, St Thomas Beckett, St. Catherine of Alexandria,
St John the Evangelist,  St. John the Baptist, St. Margaret of Antioch, St Winifred and St Michael.
Legend claims that Catherine was of noble birth, the daughter of the  governor of Alexandria. She converted to Christianity and protested against the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Maxentius (reigned 305–313 AD) and successfully argued her cause with fifty of the Emperor's philosophers tasked with convincing her of the errors of Christianity. She was scourged and imprisoned. The Emperor 's wife visited her and converted to Christianity, along with two hundred soldiers. Maxentius had his wife put to death. He offered Catherine a Royal marriage if she would deny her Faith, but she despised the thought of marriage to the Emperor as she was a 'bride of Christ'. Standing by her beliefs she was subjected to torture and finally condemned to 'breaking on the wheel'.

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
There appears to be no ancient cult of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, no mention of her in the early Martyrologies or early depictions in art. The earliest English 'Life' was not written until the 13th century.

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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