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Katharine of Alexandria. She was born, it is said, in A.D. 307, and as an indication of her martyrdom as well as of her royal birth, she is generally crowned. On the one hand, she is often depicted as bearing the sword with which she was beheaded; and on the other, as generally carrying a book as a token of her learning.
What a leading place she has had in popular estimation is shown by the fact that 51 churches are dedicated to her honour. She was the daughter of Costus, King of Alexandria, but early lost her parents.
I do not know how I can here do better than quote words spoken by the Dean of York (the Very Rev. Dr. Purey Cust), in the able sermon which he preached at the service when the restoration of the paintings was completed. He speaks thus of St. Katharine :-"A young lady, royally born, the child of Sabinella, daughter and heiress of the King of Egypt, who married Cortis, son of Constantine Chlorius, Roman Governor of York, by his first wife, at whose death he married Helena, and became the father of Constantine the Great.
"Perhaps this is the reason why here, as at York Minster, the life and death of Katharine are represented, for they would naturally be specially interesting to people."
The time came when the Emperor Maximin returned to Alexandria from Italy burning with zeal against the Christians. It was then that the event took place which is represented in the uppermost panel of the fourfold series concerning St. Katharine.
On the east side we see the idol in the Temple of Serapis, a horned image on a pedestal, and next to it holy embers of fire burn on the top of a pillar-shaped brazier, whilst a worshipper kneels at its base. Musicians with trumpets and other instruments are summoning the people to worship, whilst the Emperor himself is kneeling in front of the image, but somewhat in the background.
Full of zeal for Christ, St. Katharine apparently visits the Emperor when he has returned to his palace, and stands in front of him as he sits upon his throne, scimitar in hand, and with a black-faced attendant standing on his right. Katharine's hands are apparently clasped in prayer as she stands and rebukes the Emperor for his idolatry. Fascinated
by her beauty, and deeply struck by her earnestness and learning, Maximin seems at last to be constrained to order her to prison. As St. Katharine enters one door of the sentry-box" prison, her guardian angel stands at the other.
We have to suppose an interval to occur between what is represented in the first and second panel, during which time the learning, wisdom and beauty of St. Katharine have so much impressed the Emperor, that he determines to use every means to confute her Christianity. With this object. he seeks the wise far and wide. This introduces us to the second panel.
Fifty of the wisest philosophers are collected together to convince St. Katharine of her folly. We see her standing crowned and nimbed, strong in her faith though alone, and she so far prevails that those who had come with the set purpose of confuting her Christianity, are themselves converted in a body in the very presence of the Emperor who has summoned them to his help.
It was an easy matter for the cruel and now infuriated tyrant to give vent to his anger, and this he did by ordering the immediate execution of the newly converted Christians, the while her beauty and royal blood once more protected the life of St. Katharine.
We see her immediately after the scene of the massacre, behind the grilled window of a prison into which the Emperor has commanded her to be cast. Still no means must be left unused if it be possible to convince the princess. It is clear that argument and kindness have both alike failed against her; the tyrant must now have recourse to severity. The Saint is next seen stripped to the waist with a soldier standing on either side of her, one with a staff and the other with a birch. The Emperor himself sits on his throne on the west side, and watches with cruel interest the agonies of his victim, whose faith however remains altogether unshaken.
In the panel beneath this, we see St. Katharine once more entering the prison, whilst an officer is in attendance and presides over her incarceration. Immediately after this, we have a repetition of the sentry-box prison, and notice that the Saint has now been joined by the Empress Faustina, who in gratitude for her conversion gives every comfort to
the prisoner, and now joins her in prayer. In answer to their prayer, two Angels with bright vermilion wings appear bearing a vessel surmounted by a cross and minister both bodily and spiritual comfort.
The failure of this cruel imprisonment only embitters the Emperor, who holds the wheel in reserve as a further means of torture.
In the next scene, the Princess is once more stripped to the waist, and executioners are seen busily turning the four wheels which were designed to be the ultimate instrument of her death. Two Angels from Heaven come, however, with a sword on either side, and break the wheels into fragments, which as they are splintered off overthrow the surrounding attendants. The Emperor, as is usual, watches the scene of cruelty from his throne. The last and lowest panel now alone remains to be described. This had been much damaged and partially destroyed by the insertion of a marble memorial slab, and here, more than anywhere, I ask for the lenient consideration of the antiquary for any error of judgment of which I may have been unwittingly guilty.
Where, in the paintings above described, so much had remained almost perfect, I did not like in the lowest panel to leave the story incomplete if this could be avoided. The question then remains on what I had to work. The officer at the prison door, with a sword over his shoulder, was as he is at present. The Angel's wing remained much as it is, but the Angel was almost destroyed; the Emperor's attendant officer was in his place; part of the Emperor's head remained, but only part, whilst the slab had totally annihilated every sign of St. Katharine herself. What is painted now is a reproduction of the Saint's figure taken from above and placed in a kneeling posture.
I have followed Alban Butler in this most uncertain part of the painting, because he seemed best to fulfil the requirements of the subject. The executioner's sword is raised to strike the fatal blow, but strange though it may seem, Maximin raises his hand in very doubtful mercy, and will not behead St. Katharine when he sees her so ready to die, but is content to strip her of all her estates and goods and to send her into banishment. It seems as if it would have been happier to have left St. Katharine at the point of execution, and in joyful prospect of receiving the martyr's