Description & Technical information
Carved almost fully in the round, the reverse only slightly flattened, this beautiful oak representation of Saint Catherine was carved in Brussels at the beginning of the 16th century.
The Gospels open in her left hand, her fitted gown, highlighting her slender waist and with fashionable long open sleeves, falls in a broad sweep to the ground, her right foot emerging from beneath the voluminous drapery. Gathered at the waist with a central ring from which a long chain with decorative pomander hangs, with decorative neckline and finely embroidered and beaded bonnet, scooped at the front and latticed at the rear with floral roundels covering each ear, her ensemble conveys an elegance, poise and grace, as befits her rank as a young princess. Her long curled tresses cascading down her back, shoulders and arms, the saint stands with swayed back, with a delicate oval face, dainty slender nose and neck, high forehead and rosebud lips parted slightly, her eyes lowered to gaze at the prone figure of Emperor Maxentius at her feet, his sceptre and the sword originally held in her right hand piercing his head now lost.
Saint Catherine was born around 287 in Alexandria and martyred around 305 at the age of 18 years. Of noble birth, and probably a princess, she was well educated and an avid scholar. Moved by a holy vision around the age of 14 years, she committed to become a Christian. Although a teenager, she was very intelligent and gifted and fiercely dedicated to her decision to dedicate her life to God.
When the pagan Emperor Maxentius began persecuting Christians, Catherine visited him to denounce his cruelty. Rather than order her execution, Maxentius summoned 50 philosophers and orators to debate her. However, moved by the power of the Holy Spirit, the young Catherine spoke eloquently in defence of her faith, her words so moving that several of the crowd converted to Christianity and were immediately executed. The emperor ordered her to be tortured and imprisoned. She was arrested and scourged. Despite the torture, she did not abandon her faith. Word of her arrest and the power of her faith spread quickly and over 200 people visited her. According to some legends, the emperor's own wife, Valeria Maximilla, was converted by Catherine and for this was eventually executed by her husband. Following her imprisonment, Maxentius made a final attempt to persuade the young Catherine to abandon her faith by proposing marriage. She refused, declaring that she was married to Christ and that her virginity was dedicated to him.
The emperor was furious and ordered Catherine to be executed on the breaking wheel. The breaking wheel was an ancient form of torture where the limbs were threaded through the spokes and the bones shattered by an executioner wielding a heavy rod. It was a brutal punishment that resulted in a slow and agonising death, normally reserved for the worst criminals. When Catherine was presented before the wheel, she touched it and it miraculously shattered. Unable to torture her to death, Maxentius ordered her beheaded. The wheel has long been associated with the Saint in Christian art, with her often seen holding or standing next to a segment or it lying at her feet. She often carries either a martyr's palm or the sword with which she was executed.
Her feast day is 25 November and she is the patron saint of, amongst others, students, unmarried girls and virgins, and apologists.
This late gothic composition is an outstanding representation of the legend of one of the most popular and venerated of the female saints. With her angelic features and poise, and with traces of original polychrome and minimal losses, it is a well preserved, refined and beautifully balanced sculpture.
Period: 1400-1600, 16th Century
Origin: Belgium, Brussels
Medium: Oak, Traces of original polychrome
Dimensions: 76 x 23.7 x 13.6 cm (29⁷/₈ x 9³/₈ x 5³/₈ inches)
Provenance: Hermann Schwartz Collection, Mönchengladbach, 1960s
Private collection, Belgium
Literature: W. Beeh and H. Schnitzler (eds.), Aachener Kunstblätter, Heft 21, Bewahrte Schönheit: Mittelalterliche Kunst der Sammlung Hermann Schwartz, exhibition catalogue (Verlag Des Aachener Museumsvereins, Aachen, 1961), p. 26, no. 53, pl. 50
Exhibitions: Suermondt-Museum der Stadt Aachen, Bewahrte Schönheit: Mittelalterliche Kunst der Sammlung Hermann Schwartz, 13 May – 16 July 1961
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