Public Domain Photo: Mystical marriage of St. Catherine with the Child Jesus, lime wood sculpture with gold coloring and gilding, Master of Morlin-Epitaphs, Augsburg (1510), Bavarian National Museum, Munich
According to tradition, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (also known as ‘The Great Martyr Saint Catherine’ and ‘Saint Catherine of the Wheel’) became a martyr when she was beheaded on the orders of the Roman Emperor Maxentius.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 282 AD as the daughter of Queen Sabinella and King Costus who governed Alexandria, she was of extraordinary intelligence and a reputed scholar well-versed in sciences, arts, philosophy, etc. Though born a pagan princess, she became a Christian in her teens, and vowed to remain a virgin throughout life. Catherine had a vision of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary who gave her to Jesus in mystical marriage.
On reaching adulthood, Catherine visited the Roman Emperor Maxentius and tried to convince him of his moral errors in persecuting Christians who refused to worship pagan gods. In response, the emperor asked his best pagan orators and philosophers to debate on the issue with Catherine. She defeated them in the debate and converted them to Christianity. But, enraged at this, Maxentius executed all the converted philosophers and orators and tortured Catherine by imprisoning her.
During her imprisonment, over two hundred people, reportedly, visited her, including Empress Valeria Maximilla (wife of Maxentius) and all of them too converted to Christianity. The emperor responded to the conversions by executing all of the converted people.
Convinced that imprisonment and torture did not change Catherine’s views, the emperor tried to win over her by proposing to marry her. But she told him that she had consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ. Upon this, the emperor sentenced her to death on the breaking wheel (also known as the Catherine wheel), a torture device used for capital punishment. But, miraculously, the wheel was destroyed and Maxentius had to order her beheading in 305 AD.
According to some traditions, angels carried her body to Mount Sinai where, Emperor Justinian (483-565, the Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565) built the Saint Catherine's Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula at the foot of Mount Sinai (now in the city of Saint Catherine in Egypt). In fact, it was dedicated to the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, an event in which Jesus is transfigured and becomes radiant atop a mountain.
Over the years, the monastery has become an important pilgrimage center and repository of early Christian architecture and art that is open to visiting scholars and tourists.