Dates: 290s C.E. (??) - 305 C.E. (?)
Known for: legends vary, but usually known for her torture on a wheel before her martyrdom
Feast Day: November 25
Also known as: Katherine of Alexandria, Saint Catherine of the Wheel, Great Martyr Catherine
How We Know About Saint Catherine of Alexandria:
Eusebius writes about 320 of a Christian woman of Alexandria who refused the advances of the Roman emperor and, as a consequence of her refusal, lost her estates and was banished.
Popular stories add more details, some of which conflict with each other. The following summarizes the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria depicted in those popular stories. The story is found in the Golden Legend and also in an "Acts" of her life.
Legendary Life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria:
Catherine of Alexandria is said to have been born the daughter of Cestus, wealthy man of Alexandria in Egypt. She was noted for her wealth, intelligence, and beauty. She is said to have learned philosophy, languages, science (natural philosophy), and medicine. She refused to marry, not finding any man who was her equal. Either her mother or her reading introduced her to the Christian religion.
She is said to have challenged the emperor (Maximinus or Maximian or his son Maxentius are variously thought to be the anti-Christian emperor in question) when she was eighteen years old. The emperor brought in some 50 philosophers to dispute her Christian ideas -- but she convinced them all to convert, at which point the emperor burned them all to death. She then is said to have converted others, even the empress.
Then the emperor is said to have tried to make her his empress or mistress, and when she refused, she was tortured on a spiked wheel, which miraculously fell apart and the parts killed some who were watching the torture. Finally, the emperor had her beheaded.
Veneration of Saint Catherine of Alexandria:
In about the 8th or 9th century, a story became popular that after she died, St. Catherine's body was carried by angels to Mount Sinai, and that the monastery there was built in honor of this event.
In medieval times, St. Catherine of Alexandria was among the most popular saints, and was often depicted in statues, paintings, and other art in churches and chapels. She has been included as one of the fourteen "holy helpers," or important saints to pray to for healing. She was considered a protector of young girls and especially of those who were students or in cloisters. She was also considered the patroness of wheelwrights, mechanics, millers, philosophers, scribes, and preachers.
St. Catherine was especially popular in France, and she was one of the saints whose voices were heard by Joan of Arc. The popularity of the name "Catherine" (in various spellings) is likely based on Catherine of Alexandria's popularity.
In Orthodox Churches Catherine of Alexandria is known as a "great martyr."
There is no real historical evidence for the details of St. Catherine's life story outside these legends. Writings of visitors to the Mt. Sinai monastery do not mention her legend for the first few centuries after her death.
The feast day of Catherine of Alexandria, November 25, was removed from the Roman Catholic Church's official calendar of saints in 1969, and restored as an optional memorial on that calendar in 2002.
More women's history biographies, by name: