Saint Catherine, a native of Alexandria, Egypt, was born in the latter part of the 3rd century. This period saw the harsh rule of the Roman emperor Maximinus, known as Maximinus Thrax, who was notably severe towards Christians. Catherine hailed from a royal lineage, enjoying a privileged upbringing that included an exceptional education. Renowned for both her beauty and wisdom, she faced the challenging circumstances of a time marked by imperial hostility toward those following Christ.
By the age of eighteen, Catherine had cultivated a well-rounded education. Proficient in oratory and dialectics, she demonstrated fluency in multiple languages and possessed a deep understanding of the works of pagan writers, poets, and philosophers. Catherine's intellectual prowess and beauty were truly remarkable. Despite these qualities, neither her family nor Catherine herself found a suitable suitor.
Bust of Emperor Maximinus
Catherine's mother, secretly a Christian, faced the perilous reality of openly professing her faith in a time when Christians were brutally persecuted by pagan authorities.
Despite the customary visits of noble suitors seeking Catherine's hand in marriage, the young maiden, consumed by her studies, could not envision a path towards family life. She had not encountered a man whom she could love, and the prospect remained uncertain. In response to her parents' pleas for marriage, Catherine set forth a condition: "If you wish me to marry, find a young man who possesses the gifts with which I surpass all other girls. I will not wed someone inferior to me in any aspect. Search diligently for a young man who can match me in nobility, wealth, beauty, and wisdom; any lacking in these gifts is not worthy of me."
Recognising Catherine's unwavering determination, her mother, turning to her spiritual father, sought divine guidance for her daughter. The spiritual elder, living in seclusion away from the city, had received a vision of Catherine's spiritual journey upon seeing her. After conversing with her, he discerned that her soul was prepared to embrace Christ.
The elder's words prompted Catherine to contemplate her destiny. He spoke of a Bridegroom who surpassed her in every aspect — His beauty brighter than the sun, His wisdom governing all, His treasures infinite and ever-increasing. He was beyond comparison. These words seemed to address all of Catherine's concerns about marriage.
Upon parting, the elder, who had touched the proud girl's heart, presented Catherine with an icon of the Most Holy Mother of God with the Child. He instructed her to close the doors of her room, offer fervent prayers to the Virgin Mary depicted in the icon, and beseech Her to reveal Her Son. The elder expressed confidence that faithful prayer would lead Catherine to witness the One her soul longed for.
Icon of Great Martyr Catherine. 2nd quarter of the 18th century (State Tretyakov Gallery)
Alone in her room at night, Catherine followed the elder's guidance in prayer. In a vivid dream, she beheld the Queen of Heaven, surrounded by angels, with the Child in Her arms shining like the sun. However, the Child turned away, and Catherine couldn't see His face.
The Mother of God spoke to Her Son, "I beseech Thee, My sweetest Child, do not despise Thy creature. Instruct and teach her how to delight in Thy glory and behold Thy luminous and transfigured Face, the desire of all angels."
Christ replied, "She must go to the elder who gave her the icon, do as he commands, and she will see Me and find grace before Me."
In the morning, Katherine hastened to the elder, eager to learn about Christ and Christianity. The elder spoke of pagans as sinners, doomed for their false gods, contrasting them with the righteous who accept Christ in their hearts, heirs to paradise. He narrated the fates of Christians, Christ's earthly life, and His voluntary suffering for humanity's salvation. Captivated by these teachings, the wise maiden resolved to embrace Holy Baptism.
Accepting Catherine as a spiritual daughter, the elder instructed her to spend another night in prayer to the Mother of God, hopeful for another appearance. Catherine, obedient to the elder's counsel, rose at night to pray. Her prayers were answered: she saw the Queen of Heaven with the Child, Who gazed at her kindly. After asking if Catherine was now pleasing to Him, the Lord replied, "Very pleasing indeed, for now she is beautiful and glorious, prosperous and wise. I love her and want to betroth her to Myself as an incorruptible bride."
Overwhelmed, Katherine exclaimed, "I am not worthy, O glorious Lord, to see Thy Kingdom. Grant that I may be among Thy servants."
Christ gifted Katherine a ring, saying, "I now choose thee to be My bride, incorruptible and eternal. Keep this union inviolable and do not choose any earthly bridegroom."
Upon waking, Katherine found the ring on her hand. From that moment, she turned away from earthly thoughts, contemplating her bridegroom day and night, and learning about Him in real life and dreams.
Upon Maximinus's arrival in Alexandria, he summoned the people to a feast in honour of pagan gods. Сatherine, grieved by the king's promotion of pagan superstitions, fearlessly confronted him in the temple where the assembly gathered. She challenged the king, questioning his worship of abominable idols, and urged him to know the true God, the beginningless and infinite, Who governs kings and sustains the world. She proclaimed that He descended to earth, becoming man for humanity's salvation.
Infuriated, the king ordered Catherine's imprisonment and tasked 50 scholars with converting her to paganism. However, before they could reach her, the Archangel Michael appeared, reassuring Catherine, "Fear not, O maiden! Your Lord will augment your wisdom, and you will overcome these 50 wise men. Not only them, but many others will believe through you and receive the crown of martyrdom."
For several days, the scholars presented various arguments in favour of paganism, but Catherine, armed with logic and reasoning, dismantled their arguments. She demonstrated that there could only be one wise Creator, surpassing the pagan deities in perfection. In the end, the scholars conceded their defeat.
Mosaic image of St. Catherine of Alexandria
Enraged, the king ordered the burning of all the philosophers. Learning of their impending fate, they prostrated themselves at Catherine's feet, seeking her intercession. They implored her to pray to the One True God for forgiveness of their ignorance, requesting Holy Baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The saint, filled with joy, said to them, "Blessed and happy indeed are ye, for having forsaken darkness, ye have known the true light, and having despised the mortal earthly king, ye have come to the Immortal Heavenly One; trust firmly in His mercy, and believe that the fire with which the wicked frighten you will serve as your baptism, and as a ladder to heaven. In this fire, you will be cleansed from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, and before the King of glory, you will appear as bright and pure as the stars, and you will become His beloved friends."
When the saint had said this, she blessed each of them with the sign of the cross, and they gladly went to be martyred. The soldiers threw all the philosophers into the fire, and thus they were martyred. Their remains were found untouched by the fire. After this, many Gentiles believed in Christ.
J. Bassano, "St. Catherine and the Martyrs of Alexandria", 1545, City Museum, Bassana del Grappa, Italy.
Maximinus persisted in his attempts to sway Catherine's resolve. Summoning her, he tempted the holy maiden with gifts, promises of honours, and glory, but she remained steadfast.
The emperor then ordered Catherine to be beaten with oxen's veins, resulting in severe wounds that disfigured her body. Astonishingly, Katherine bore these tortures with unwavering courage. Subsequently, the king commanded her imprisonment in a dungeon without food.
During the king's absence, his wife, Queen Augusta, intrigued by Catherine's reputed wisdom, visited her. After conversing with the saint, Augusta embraced Christianity.
God, in His mercy, did not abandon His devoted bride. Each day, a dove brought Catherine sustenance. On one occasion, Christ Himself, surrounded by heavenly glory and celestial beings, appeared to her. He strengthened the martyr's courage and imbued her with boldness, saying, "Fear not, my beloved bride; I am always with thee. No torment shall affect thee. Through thy patience, thou shalt lead many to Me, and as a reward, thou shalt receive many incorruptible crowns."
Upon Maximinus's return to Alexandria, he made another futile attempt to sway Catherine. In response, one of the emperor's servants devised a torturous instrument — a set of wooden wheels with iron points intended to crush the saint's body.
Despite tying Catherine to the wheels, an angel descended, freeing her and demolishing the wheels, which scattered and fatally struck many unbelievers. Enraged, the king devised new tortures.
When Augusta learned of these events, she confronted her husband, reproaching him for defying God. In his fury, Maximinus ordered her execution. After enduring much torment, Augusta was beheaded with a sword. On that day, numerous people embraced the True God and faced martyrdom.
Bernardino Luini. "St Catherine carried by angels to her tomb". Fresco from the Villa Pelucca in Sesto San Giovanni, Italy, 1520-1523.
On the subsequent day, Maximinus, having brought Catherine to court, attempted to persuade her with words of supposed forgiveness. Despite his entreaties, promising her wealth and the title of queen, Catherine remained resolute in her faith.
Realising that no inducements could sway the steadfast maiden, Maximinus decided to execute her by beheading with a sword outside the city.
Before her execution, Catherine uttered a prayer, expressing gratitude to the Lord for granting her patience and steadfastness. She implored Jesus Christ to extend His hands, once wounded on the cross, to receive her soul as a sacrifice for Him. In her prayer, she sought forgiveness for sins committed in ignorance and asked that the blood she poured out for Christ would cleanse them. She also prayed for enlightenment and salvation for those who persecuted her.
Addressing the executioner, she calmly said, "Finish what you have been commanded."
The soldier then beheaded St. Catherine, and instead of blood, milk miraculously flowed from the wound. Immediately, angels took her honourable relics and transported them to Mount Sinai.
The Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt
The incorruptible hand of St Catherine
After some time, a men's monastery dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Lord was established in the Sinai Peninsula.
In the 8th century, a resident of this monastery had a vision revealing the location of St. Catherine's relics on the summit of Mount Sinai. Upon receiving this revelation, the monk informed his brethren, who then ascended the mountain and discovered the head and left hand of the martyr.
Recognizing the relics by the ring that the saint had received from the Lord, the monks transferred them to their monastery. Since that moment, the monastery has been known as St. Catherine's Monastery.
Presently, the relics of the Great Martyr Catherine repose in a small marble ark located in the altar of the monastery's main church. Another portion of the relics is preserved in a reliquary encased in an icon of the Great Martyr, always open for the faithful to venerate.
Troparion of the Great Martyr Katherine of Alexandria
Through your virtues, akin to the sun's rays, you illuminated the minds of pagan sages; like the radiant moon guiding night wanderers, you dispelled the shadows of disbelief, guiding the Empress to faith. You confronted the tyrant and were chosen by God as His beloved bride, O blessed Katherine. With love, you ascended to the celestial Bridal Chamber of the most gracious Bridegroom, Christ, who adorned you with a regal crown. Now, standing in His presence with the angels, intercede for us who venerate your sacred memory.
Kontakion of the Great Martyr Katherine
Let those inspired with love for the martyrs unite in a grand choir to celebrate the most wise Katherine. In the arena, she proclaimed Christ, trampling the serpent, and exposed the wisdom of orators as contemptible.
Prayer to the Great Martyr Katherine
O holy Katherine, virgin and martyr, true spouse of Christ! We entreat thee, thou who received a special grace whereby dearest Jesus, thy Bridegroom, manifested Himself to thee. Having confounded the deceit of the tyrant with thy wisdom and triumphed over the fifty rhetoricians, imparting to them celestial doctrine and guiding them to the radiance of the true Faith, beseech for us that same divine wisdom. May we too, tearing apart the snares of the hades tyrant and rejecting the allurements of the world and the flesh, prove ourselves worthy of divine glory. May we become vessels fit for the dissemination of our holy Orthodox Faith, and in the heavenly abode, join with thee in praising and glorifying our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, unto all ages. Amen.
Magnification of the Great Martyr Katherine
We magnify thee, О holy Great Martyr Katherine, and we honor thy precious sufferings, which thou didst endure for Christ.