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Milk, wheel and book

The saint of the month told by Lisa Muraro

“Saint Catherine was the daughter of a King”. Thus began a playful rhyme we used to sing as girls. It recounted the conflict between Catherine of Alexandria and her pagan father. In reality, that is in the official legend (documented history does not exist), the conflict that led to her martyrdom was with the Roman Emperor, Maximillian. But we are always dealing with the men who make the rules.

Her royal origins are a metaphorical attribute of women who give evidence of a simbolic independence, what Annarosa Buttarelli calls “sovereign” in a book which has just this title. According to William of Bohemia she was the daughter and sister of kings (and perhaps this was true to the letter); royal origins that Margerita Porete symbolically attributes to “annhilated souls” and the poet Emily Dickinson to herself.

Iconography confirms the royal origins of Catherine, who among the saints is recognisable by some symbols, namely the crown on her head, a book in her hand, often the palm of martyrdom in the other and a wheel at her feet.

The emperor had condemned her to the torture of the wheel, which miraculously did not work; he then ordered the cutting off of her head that broke away from the body which brought forth not blood but milk. She thus became the patron saint of wheel manufacturers and lactating women. The emperor attempted to bring her to the worship of the gods and sent her, for this purpose, fifty philosophers but it was she who convinced them of the superiority of the Christian message, thus becoming the patron saint of philosophers. Milk, wheel, book, a really magnificent constellation of symbols.

Many things about this great saint of the Eastern Church evoke the historical figure of Hypatia of Alexandria, a neo-platonic philospher who was martyred in 415 by a group of fanatical christians during the time of Cyril, the bishop and Father of the Church, who viewed her with a hint of jealousy for the large following that she enjoyed. Some have suggested that Saint Catherine of Alexandria is a figure created to repair and cover up this crime. There is no evidence of this. On the other hand there is no evidence even of the historical existence of the Christian martyr. This is why her cult has been limited but, fortunately, not suppressed.

The advantage of legendary figures is that they offer themselves to our imagination without limits. Catherine has been for centuries a living presence in popular piety and an example of female greatness. When from the East the stories of pilgrims and crusaders spread West, Europe was populated with women named Catherine, and chapels or churches with the same title.

In the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome a chapel frescoed by Masolino da Panicale is dedicated to Saint Catherine. Among the churches, perhaps the most impressive is the Basilica of Otranto in Salento. The cycle of paintings dedicated to her begins showing her as she enters, followed by other women, a place of pagan cult, lifts her arm pointing to the sky and preaches; the idol worshippers – some dressed as prelates! – do not pay attention to her but the Emperor does: from the throne he points a finger at the female opponent and the two, both crowned, face each other in the foreground, to the left and right of the picture.

There are also written accounts. One reads in the acts of the trial of the Guglielmite “sect”, during the reign of Boniface VIII, that the devotees of Guglielma avoided the bans of the Inquisition venerating their saint under the guise of Saint Catherine who they had painted in this or that Church in the city.

Arriving in Europe Catherine did lose her characteristic trait of a free woman capable of disobeying men in order to obey God. The most striking document illustrating this is found in the trial condemning Joan of Arc. Saint Catherine, together with Saint Margaret, she too having come from the East, is a constant presence at the side of Joan, accused of being a witch and a heretic: “Saint Catherine said she would come to my aid”, “Saint Catherine will respond to me straight away”, “Saint Catherine will advise me on this” and so on.

In the early hearings, she talks about the voices that convey to her the divine will, but without giving them a name. The inquisitor presses her, he wants to know if it was the voice of an angel, of a male or female saint, or else “of God without an intermediary”. An insidious formula, this last one, which the girl – she was nineteen years of age – seems to perceive because at this point she gives the Judge the information requested: “They were the voices of Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret, whose heads were surrounded by beautiful crowns, ornate and precious”. She adds: “God has allowed me to reveal this” thus explaining her past reticence.

The text of the process is a document, historical and spiritual together, which is amazing. It illustrates a conflict which seems fatally one-sided, everything being on the side of the tribunal, authority, experience, doctrine, power, that in fact ends up by balancing itself on the other side, that of a nineteen year old girl who defends her christian honour and her freedom of conscience.

This is what female and male saints are for, I suppose.

A philopher and writer, Luisa Muraro has long taught at the University of Verona. She was one of the founders of the Woman’s Bookshop in Milan and of the Diotima philosophical community. She is the author, among others, of Il pensiero della differenza sessuale (1987), L’ordine simbolico della madre (1991), Oltre l’uguaglianza. Le radici femminili dell’autorità (1994), Lingua materna, scienza divina. Scritti sulla filosofia mistica di Margherita Porete (1995), Le amiche di Dio (2001), Il Dio delle donne (2003), Non è da tutti. L’indicibile fortuna di nascere donna (2011), Dio è violent (2012), Autorità (2013).

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