The Holy Great Martyr Katherine was the daughter of Constus, the governor of Alexandrian Egypt during the reign of the emperor Maximian (305-313). Living in the capital, the center of Hellenistic knowledge, and possessed of a rare beauty and intellect, Katherine received an excellent education, studying the works of the greatest philosophers and teachers of antiquity. Young men from the most worthy families of the empire sought the hand of the beautiful Katherine, but she was not interested in any of them. She told her parents that she would enter into marriage only with someone who surpassed her in nobility, wealth, comeliness and wisdom.
Katherine's mother, a secret Christian, sent her to her own spiritual Father, a saintly Elder living in a cave outside the city, for advice. After listening to Katherine, the Elder said that he knew of a Youth who surpassed her in everything. "His countenance is more radiant than the shining of the sun, and all of creation is governed by His wisdom. His riches are given to all the nations of the world, yet they never diminish. His compassion is unequaled."
This description of the Heavenly Bridegroom produced in the soul of the holy maiden an ardent desire to see Him. "If you do as I tell you," said the monk, "you will gaze upon the countenance of this illustrious man." In parting, the Elder handed Katherine an icon of the Theotokos with the divine Child Jesus on Her arm and told her to pray with faith to the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of the Heavenly Bridegroom, and She would hear Katherine and grant her heart's desire.
Katherine prayed all night and was permitted to see the Most Holy Virgin, Who said Her Divine Son, "Behold Thy handmaiden Katherine, how fair and virtuous she is." But the Child turned His face away from her saying, "No, she is ugly and unbelieving. She is a foolish pauper, and I cannot bear to look at her until she forsakes her impiety."
Katherine returned again to the Elder deeply saddened, and told him what she had seen in the dream. He lovingly received her, instructed her in the faith of Christ, admonished her to preserve her purity and integrity and to pray unceasingly. She then received the Mystery of holy Baptism from him. Again St Katherine had a vision of the Most Holy Theotokos with Her Child. Now the Lord looked tenderly at her and gave her a beautiful ring, a wondrous token of her betrothal to the Heavenly Bridegroom (This ring is still on her hand).
At that time the emperor Maximian was in Alexandria for a pagan festival. Therefore, the celebration was especially splendid and crowded. The cries of the sacrificial animals, the smoke and the smell of the sacrifices, the endless blazing of fires, and the bustling crowds at the arenas defiled the city of Alexandria. Human victims also were brought, the confessors of Christ, those who would not deny Him under torture. They were condemned to death in the fire. The saint's love for the Christian martyrs and her fervent desire to ease their sufferings compelled Katherine to speak to the pagan priest and to the emperor Maximian.
Introducing herself, the saint confessed her faith in the One True God and with wisdom exposed the errors of the pagans. The beauty of the maiden captivated the emperor. In order to convince her and to show the superiority of pagan wisdom, the emperor ordered fifty of the most learned philosophers and rhetoricians of the Empire to dispute with her, but the saint got the better of the wise men, so that they came to believe in Christ themselves. St Katherine made the Sign of the Cross over the martyrs, and they bravely accepted death for Christ and were burned alive by order of the emperor.
Maximian, no longer hoping to convince the saint, tried to entice her with the promise of riches and fame. Receiving an angry refusal, the emperor gave orders to subject the saint to terrible tortures and then throw her in prison. The Empress Augusta, who had heard much about the saint, wanted to see her. She prevailed upon the military commander Porphyrius to accompany her to the prison with a detachment of soldiers. The empress was impressed by the strong spirit of St Katherine, whose face was radiant with divine grace. The holy martyr explained the Christian teaching to them, and they were converted to Christ.
On the following day they again brought the martyr to the judgment court where, under the threat of being broken on the wheel, they urged that she renounce the Christian Faith and offer sacrifice to the gods. The saint steadfastly confessed Christ and she herself approached the wheels; but an angel smashed the instruments of execution, which shattered into pieces with many pagans standing nearby.
Having beheld this wonder, the Empress Augusta and the imperial courtier Porphyrius with 200 soldiers confessed their faith in Christ in front of everyone, and they were beheaded. Maximian again tried to entice the holy martyr, proposing marriage to her, and again he was refused. St Katherine firmly confessed her fidelity to the heavenly Bridegroom Christ, and with a prayer to Him she herself lay her head on the block beneath the executioner's sword.
Veneration & Patronage
Katherine’s body was miraculously transferred to an impassable place on the highest peaks of Mt. Sinai. In the year 549, Emperor Justinian founded a monastery on Mt. Sinai, and built a church named The Transfiguration of the Savior. Some 400 years later the monks of the monastery found the body of Saint Katherine and placed it in a sepulcher in the katholikon of the monastery, enshrined for veneration. The monks found on the surface of the granite on which her body lay, an impression of the form of her body. After her body was enshrined in the monastery, the monks renamed the church Saint Katherine. Thus the official celebration of the monastery takes place on the 25th of November, the nameday of Saint Katherine. The monks prepared a monogram for Saint Katherine by using the first three letters of her Greek name clustered around a cross in red for her martyrdom and white for her purity. In 1480, a traveler named Monsignor Bernard de Breydenbach, famous as an accurate and conscientious observer, climbed Mt. Sinai to investigate the curious phenomenon of the impression of her body on granite. He wrote, “On the top of this mountain exists a stony place bearing the form of a human body which was worked neither by iron nor by another human instrument, because the stone became soft and wax-like”. The highest peak of Mt. Sinai, 2,641 meters high, was named Saint Katherine, and has been known over the centuries among the Arabs as Jebel Katerin.
Saint Katherine’s shrine has been venerated by the West as well as the East. Her shrine became popularly known through the efforts of a learned monk, Simeon, who in 1027 traveled through Europe asking for donations for the preservation of the monastery. Simeon carried with him relics of Saint Katherine for veneration by the people. The monks who accompanied the crusaders returned to Europe with stories of this shrine. Saint Katherine’s fame spread to many distinct places. Many churches were dedicated in her name. One of the most famous is the 12th century church of Wisby in Scotland, consisting of 12 high octagonal columns. During the 12th century the Order of the Knights of Saint Katherine was founded to protect the monastery on Mt. Sinai and the faithful who fled there to escape the Arabs. Great devotion was directed to her during the Middle Age, notably in France during the Crusades. In Paris, in 1222, was founded the Brotherhood of Saint Katherine to care for the sick.
The Philosophical School of Paris proclaimed her as the Patroness of philosophical studies and education. All over Europe the universities celebrated her name as Patroness of Letters, even after the Reformation. Frequently in religious dramas over the centuries Saint Katherine was presented as the ideal of virginity and wisdom. Her personality was the subject of literature and the object of art by well-known artists.
St Katherine is called upon for relief and assistance during a difficult childbirth. Pilgrims to her monastery on Mt Sinai are given souvenir rings as a remembrance of their visit.
Troparion to St. Katherine
By your virtues as by rays of the sun
you enlightened the unbelieving philosophers,
and like the most bright moon
you drove away the darkness of disbelief
from those walking in the night;
you convinced the queen,
and also chastised the tyrant,
God-summoned bride, blessed Katherine.
You hastened with desire
to the heavenly bridal chamber
of the fairest Bridegroom Christ,
and you were crowned by Him with a royal crown;
standing before Him with the angels,
pray for us who keep your most sacred memory.