She was about eighteen and her name was Catherine. She lived in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, the city that Antony the Great of Egypt had once visited and that was the home of Athanasius.
Catherine lived during the reign of the Roman emperor Maxentius and was famous throughout the city for her beauty. Despite this, she was the sort of person who liked to spend her time reading and studying. Indeed, she was just as famous for her intelligence as she was for her good looks.
Now it so happened that Emperor Maxentius made a visit to Alexandria, which was part of his empire. While he was there, he heard about Catherine’s beauty and intelligence. He commanded his servants to bring her to meet him. As soon as he saw her, he decided he wanted to marry her. Immediately. But there was a problem.
Maxentius already had a wife.
Maxentius (who continued to worship the ancient Roman gods) didn’t think this mattered at all. “Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll have two wives at the same time. I’m the emperor, I can do what I like.” Catherine was having none of this. She refused his proposal, saying that as a Christian she couldn’t possibly agree to such a relationship.
Maxentius then gathered together a great number of teachers and professors who also believed in the Roman gods. He told them to persuade Catherine that her Christian faith was nonsense. She listened to them for a while and then started answering their points convincingly and persuasively. The result was that, far from getting Catherine to change her mind, these wise men began to change their own minds.
The emperor was not only angry; he was alarmed. What would happen if Rome gave up its worship of the old gods? He didn’t want any of what he described as “this Christian nonsense.”
So he gave orders that Catherine should be put to death in a particularly horrible way. He had a large wheel made, with sharp blades set into the outside rim. Then Catherine was to be tied around this edge, and the blades were intended to cut her to pieces as the wheel was rolled along.
It didn’t go according to plan. When Catherine was bound to the wheel, it broke and the blades flew off in all directions, flashing in the light and wounding the soldiers who were supposed to be putting her to death. Some people say all this was caused by lightning striking the wheel. Whether that is true or not, Catherine’s executioners didn’t try making another wheel. They beheaded her at once.
It is said that a flight of angels then descended from heaven and carried her body to Mount Sinai, where, centuries before, God had given the Ten Commandments to Moses. Even today there is a monastery named Saint Catherine’s there.
People also remember the death of Saint Catherine with the firework that is named after her, which is supposed to spin around as her wheel did.
Image credit: Saint Catherine by Bernardino Luini, 16th century. Public Domain via Wikimedia.