St. Catherine was born during the latter part of the third century in Alexandria in Egypt. Being of royal lineage, she was immersed in the great cultural tradition of Alexandria and was exposed to learning at an early age. Tall, beautiful, cultured, and erudite, Catherine was held in high esteem for her mastery of the arts and sciences of her time. Innately intelligent and inquisitive, she acquainted herself with the writings of the philosophers, poets, physicians, and scientists of the Hellenes. In fact, in recognition of her superb learning, the Church gave her the title “the Wise.”
Through the influence of her pious mother Catherine became a Christian in her youth. Her love of learning led her to the study of the sacred Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers. She became a devoted follower of the Lord Christ, an exemplary doer of God’s word, and an ardent defender of the Orthodox faith. Wise, modest, and pure Catherine gave her heart to Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church and the Saviour of the world.
On November 25, 305, while still in the prime of her youth, Catherine was martyred in the city of her birth during the reign of the impious Roman Emperor Maxentius, who had begun anew a violent series of persecutions against Christians. When the Emperor had come to Alexandria he had an encounter with Catherine. He marvelled at her loveliness and wisdom but was dreadfully dismayed by her defence of Christians. Because she was of imperial stock, he did not wish to harm her out-rightly but hoped to humiliate her to submission. He ordered that she defend her faith in open debate with the renowned pagan orators and philosophers of Alexandria, hoping that she would be made a spectacle and thereby retreat to her pagan roots. Instead Catherine routed the rhetoricians.
The Emperor was moved to wrath and ordered that Catherine be stripped of her imperial garb, flogged, and tortured. But neither the threats nor the tortures were able to sunder Catherine from Christ. Having failed to entice her, the cruel Emperor ordered her decapitation.
The holy relics of St. Catherine were later brought to the Monastery of Mt. Sinai, founded in the fourth century in a remote location in the Sinai Peninsula on the site of the Burning Bush at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 3). Eventually, centuries aft er acquiring her relics, the Monastery took the name of St. Catherine.
The Icon of St. Catherine
Because of her royal lineage, St. Catherine is depicted invariably in imperial garments holding a martyr ’s cross. She is often shown seated at a desk upon which is an open book. Other books and a celestial sphere are at her feet, indicating her extensive knowledge and wisdom. She is also portrayed with her left hand resting on a wheel, the symbol of progress but in her case the emblem of her martyrdom.