Friday 25 November 2016

The Legend of Saint Catherine of Alexandria

November 25 is the feast of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, one of the great eastern female martyrs. The story of Saint Catherine's martyrdom was immensely popular in the medieval west and includes a fifteenth-century Irish version. In 2014 I posted a translation of a medieval Irish poem in honour of Saint Catherine here, below is a later poetic offering by a nineteenth-century Irish woman, Ellen O'Connell Fitzsimmon. I hadn't heard of the author before but learnt here that she was actually a daughter of the Liberator himself, Daniel O'Connell. Our poetess tells us in the introduction to her work that she was inspired by a fresco in Saint Clement's Basilica in Rome to give her own version of Saint Catherine's martyrdom:

By Ellen Fitzsimon (born O'Connell).


BENEATH Saint Clement's venerated dome,
Most perfect of the Basilics of Rome,
(Where a good Irish friar hath done more
Than all the rich and pious had before
In many centuries), there met my sight
A fresco painting, not long given to light,
The which a noble, simple story told
Of triumph by Saint Catherine won of old
Against the heathen sages, and the day
When for the Christian Faith she gave her life away.
Recalling this, and many a glorious feat
Of that great Saint, her legend I repeat.
Laying my homage humbly at her feet.


In Alexandria, centuries ago,
Amid a circle of philosophers.
Of solemn sages, throughout Egypt famed.
With others from the walls of palmy Rome,
And Greece's classic clime, sate Catherine,
A Christian virgin, stately, fair, and young.
Descended of a high Imperial race.
And further graced with genius' golden gifts.
Calmly she sate, and disputation held
With all those mighty masters of the mind.
Alike on sciences and curious arts,
On all thy varied forms. Philosophy!
And higher still. Theology divine.
In admiration, mixed with awe, the crowd
Of listeners hung upon her silvery tones.
The while with wondrous eloquence she spake
The might, the majesty of Heaven's ways
Revealed to man ! refuting thoroughly
All arguments, however plausible,
By her opponents brought forth to support
The worn-out faith on fable solely founded.
On fable, feeble, foolish, and unclean!
At length the pseudo-sages — struggling still
Against conviction, nor content to own
Defeat, except by silence — suddenly
Broke up the assembly, on some poor pretence.
And each departed, feeling envious hate
Invade his inmost soul against Catherine,
Who thus had humbled them before the people.
She meantime to her very palace doors
Was by the shouting citizens attended
As in a triumph. Then, the crowd once gone,
She sought her secret cell, to purity.
To constant faith, true love, and hope divine.
Kept sacred. There, before the crucifix
Kneeling, she cried, “To Thee, to Thee, O Lord,
The glory and the praise, that Thou hast lent
Thy handmaid power to triumph in Thy name”.
Not many days now passed, ere to the city
Came Maximin, the tyrant Emperor.
Soon summoned to his court were all the nobles,
And all the brave, the youthful and the fair ;
Amongst them Catherine, as a kinswoman
Of the Imperial Caesar, held high place,
No less than for her bearing and her genius.
Scarce had the Emperor beheld the maid
When love (as fierce as hate) possessed his soul!
Oh, no! not love, but passion, such as fills
The brindled panther s panting breast, for her
His bright-eyed, cruel co-mate of the woods !
All unaccustomed, save to swift success,
He signified his feelings, doubting not
Of joyful acceptation, Catherine,
Without or exultation or disdain.
Declined his suit. Fired fourfold by repulse,
He, who at first had nothing meant in honour.
Now cried, " Thou surely dost not understand
That Caesar woos thee for his bride, his Empress"
Still calm, unmoved, the maid rejected him;
For she had bound herself by secret vow
The bride of Heaven alone, nor would resign
For earthly throne the virgin's privilege
To follow in the path the Lamb doth tread.
Foaming with fury, yet not daring aught
Against a daughter of Imperial line.
The tyrant saw her leave his courtly halls.
The while he cried, "Oh! for a safe revenge
On this insulting woman!"
Since this earth
First ran its destined course around the sun.
Was never wanting to a tyrant's rage
Fit instrument  false philosopher,
Of those whom Catherine lately overcame,
Gladly embraced the occasion offered him
To work her evil. To the infuriate Caesar
Did he denounce her as blasphemer 'gainst
The gods of Rome, of Athens, and of Egypt,
As being that most vile of all vile things,
A Christian! Summoned to the dread tribunal
Of Maximin, who triumphed in the thought
Of humbling her, came now without delay
The lovely lady. Stately and serene
Did she approach, and, questioned of her faith,
Unhesitating owned herself a Christian.
The Emperor, his passion moved anew at sight
Both of her beauty and unflinching courage,
Offered her life and freedom on condition
That she unto the gods made sacrifice.
Again rejected, he went further still,
Promising safety, liberty of faith,
If she would only bless him with her hand.
Needs not to say what Catherine replied ;
Enough that in his rage he sentenced her
Instant to perish by a fearful death,
By cruel torture on a whirling wheel 
His orders were obeyed. Amid the groans
Of many, and the secret tears of more.
The maid, upon whose brow sate peace and joy,
Was bound upon the wheel, while Maximin,
Panting for vengeance, loudly called upon
The executioner to do his duty.
The wretch approached to turn the fatal wheel.
To which the maiden was already bound.
When, lo! a miracle! As struck by lightning.
The horrid engine into pieces fell;
And Catherine, her arms crossed on her breast.
Stood, calmly there, uninjured and unbound!
Then rose up to the firmament a shout
Of jubilee from all the multitude,
“The gods forbid that Catherine should die!"
And breaking through the strongest barriers
They placed the virgin on a lofty car,
And drew her with rejoicing to her home!
The tyrant dared not then oppose the people
In their wild moment of enthusiasm ;
But when dark night enwrapped the slumbering city
Was Catherine seized, and secretly conveyed
To prison by his orders. There some days
She languished in the deepest of the dungeons.
Thence, still in silence and in secrecy,
Brought forth at dawn, she perished by the sword,
Her latest breath breathed out in prayer and praise !
Towards morn, a rumour of the virgin's death
Spread through the city, whence derived none knew :
Nor did the people dare to speak aloud
Their doubts and fears upon the matter now ;
For Maximin with arm'd satellites
Had filled each public square and market-place,
And made the craven-hearted people quail
By vast display of force.
The night had come.
The dead of night. The city slumbering lay;
No star shone sparkling in the firmament.
But, like a pall, hung darkness on the earth:
When lo! a sound such as no instrument.
No trumpet, save archangel's, e'er gave out,
So sadly sweet, so thrilling, terrible.
Roused sudden from their sleep the citizens;
While, high in air, a dazzling, blinding light
Shone, 'neath whose glare the Pagans, all aghast.
Fell prone to earth, the while the Christians saw
A band of bright-wing'd angels cleave the sky,
Bearing the body of Saint Catherine
And chanting hymns of triumph as they flew,
Until they reached the summit of a hill
Where they deposited their holy charge
In safety on a spot where, long years after,
A church and monastery were up-raised.
Who owned Saint Catherine for their Patroness,
Their pious intercessor with the Lord!
Such is the legend handed down to us 
In truth and wisdom from the ancient days.

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