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Catherine of Alexandria (?–305)

Catherine of Alexandria (?–305)

Christian martyr and saint. Name variations: Catharine, Katharine, Katherine, Katerin; (Spanish) Catarina; (Italian) Caterina; (Portuguese) Catharina. Born in Alexandria, date unknown; according to tradition, tortured on the wheel and beheaded at Alexandria on November 25, 305 ce; daughter of Costus, king of Cilicia, and Sabinella , a Samaritan princess; educated at home.

The historical details of Catherine of Alexandria's life are uncertain, but she is distinguished as the patron saint of philosophers, literature, schools, wheelwrights, spinners, and mechanics. Her feast day is November 25, and she is portrayed with a book, a crown, and a wheel, which represent knowledge, royalty, and her miraculous escape from death.

Born in Alexandria to royalty, Catherine was schooled from the age of seven and then educated at home, where, because of her great wisdom, her tutors are said to have become her pupils. Despite the wishes of her family that she marry, Catherine chose to remain a virgin. Shortly after her baptism, she had a religious vision (probably of marriage to Christ), which sealed her Christian faith.

When the Emperor Maximin Daia, admiring her great beauty, attempted to seduce the 17-year-old woman, he could not overcome the religious devotion that now underscored her vow of chastity. He called on 50 pagan philosophers to dispute Catherine, all of whom were then converted to Christianity by her. Maximin Daia had them put to death, and Catherine was whipped and imprisoned.

During Maximin Daia's absence, his wife Empress Constance , with her attendant,

Porphyrius, visited Catherine, and they were also converted to Christianity by her arguments. Porphyrius, in turn, is said to have converted 100 soldiers. Upon his return, Maximin had his wife, Porphyrius, and the soldiers put to death, and Catherine was condemned to be broken on the wheel, which involved the use of two iron wheels covered with sharp blades between which Catherine was supposed to die. When the wheels broke in answer to her prayer, the onlookers were killed and maimed by the flying razored spikes. Her escape from death earned the spiked wheel the name "Catherine wheel" and earned Catherine her place as patron saint of wheelwrights. She was subsequently beheaded. Relics of Catherine's life are scattered throughout European churches. In the 10th century, a cult, the Order of the Knights of Saint Catherine, arose at Mount Sinai, where it was thought that her body had been discovered. The body remains there, and what is believed to be the head is housed in Rome.

Constance (d. 305 ce)

Roman empress. Martyred in 305 ce; married Maximin Daia, the Eastern emperor and governor of Egypt and Syria (r. 305–313).


Baring-Gould, S. The Lives of the Saints. London: John C. Nimmo, 1897.

Caxton, William. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. NY: AMS Press, 1900.

Kersey, Ethel M. Women Philosophers: a Bio-critical Source Book. NY: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Catherine Hundleby , M.A. Philosophy, University of Guelph

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