Catherine’s Wheel

NT; (c) Stourhead; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Today is the feast day of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, after whom the firework called a Catherine Wheel is named. First I’d like to say that there is no historical evidence that there was ever any such person. So, whilst early Christians undoubtedly suffered persecution and death for their beliefs, her life story and the awful tale of her martyrdom are probably made up.

Catherine died at the beginning of the fourth century. She was an extremely well educated and erudite young woman who became a Christian at an early age. When she heard of the dreadful persecutions of her fellow believers at the hands of Emperor Maxentius, she thought that if she went to see him, she might be able to talk him round. The Emperor called fifty of his best pagan philosophers to argue against her, but they failed. She converted all of them to Christianity and they were all immediately sentenced to death by burning. The only thing that seems to have worried them about this was that they had not been baptised. Catherine told them not to worry, because their own blood would baptise them and they would go straight to heaven.

The Emperor was so angry that he had her beaten and thrown into prison for twelve days without food. Luckily though, a dove came and brought her ‘celestial meat’ I don’t know what that is, but it sounds weird. When Maxentius returned, he couldn’t believe how well she looked. He was so impressed in fact, that he asked her to marry him. Unsurprisingly, after all the torture and imprisonment, she declined. The Emperor did not take it well, he called for a contraption to be built that was made up of four wheels. The wheels were to be covered with razors and be set up as two pairs that would turn in opposite directions. His idea was that Catherine be tied in the middle where she would be cut and pulled apart by the wheels. Fortunately, just as she was being tied to the thing, the Angel of the Lord came and blasted the machine apart with such a force that it killed four thousand bystanders. Now if, tomorrow, somebody exploded something that killed four thousand humans, they wouldn’t be widely venerated and have a special day named after them. But I imagine it all depends on your point of view.

Catherine, it seems, was unharmed. But then Maxentius ordered her head cut off. I’ve read a lot of martyrdom stories and saints, rather like vampires, are usually finished off by beheading. Though some have even survived this, at least for a few hours. When Catherine’s head was cut off, instead of blood, milk flowed out of her body. Then angels came and took her. They flew to Mount Sinai, where they buried her. A monastery was built there in her name, a site which was previously venerated as the place where Moses witnessed the burning bush.

The earliest reference we have to the life of Saint Catherine, comes from around 866 AD, more than 500 years after she was supposed to have died. But it seems her remains were ‘rediscovered’ in 800 AD. Her hair was still growing and her bones were producing a constant supply of healing oil. This must have been terribly convenient for those in the business of supplying holy relics. Apparently Edward the Confessor had a phial of Catherine’s oil. He didn’t get such a great relic as an eleventh century monk named Simeon though. Simeon spent seven years praying next to her body, that part of her hand would detach itself from the rest of her. Eventually, either by the grace of God, or just when nobody was looking, three of her fingers did come off. He took them home to France and presented them to the Bishop of Rouen. These fingers and her head, which is still at Sinai, are all that now remain of Saint Catherine. There, on her saints day, we read that there is a ceremony known as the ‘Smelling Of The Head Of Saint Catherine Of Alexandria’ In case you’re wondering, it smells of myrrh.


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