Friday, June 24, 2011


Title: St Catherine of Alexandria
Artist: Raphael
Medium: Oil on wood
Size: 71.1 x 54.6 cm
Date: 1508
Location: National Gallery, London.


Saint Catherine of Alexandria, also known as Saint Catherine of the Wheel and The Great Martyr Saint Catherine, is said to have been a noted scholar in the early 4th century. The Orthodox Church venerates her as a "great martyr", and in the Catholic Church she is traditionally revered as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Catherine was born in Alexandria and raised a pagan, but converted to Christianity in her late teens. It is said that she visited the Roman Emperor Maximinus Daia, and attempted to convince him of the moral error in persecuting Christians. She succeeded in converting his wife, the Empress, and many pagan philosophers whom the Emperor sent to dispute with her (all of whom were subsequently martyred). Upon the failure of the Emperor to win Catherine over, he ordered her to be put in prison; and when the people who visited her converted, she was condemned to death on the breaking wheel, an instrument of torture. According to legend, the wheel itself broke when she touched it, so she was beheaded.

Painted just before Raphael's move to Rome, St Catherine of Alexandria is portrayed in a marvelous, twisted pose. Her left arm is leaning on a wheel - an allusion to the breaking wheel of her martyrdom - and her right hand is pressed to her breast while she gazes up at a sky flooded with light. The composition is as rich in harmonious movement as the coloration is full and varied. The delicate modeling of the saint, the slight torsion of her body as she leans on the wheel (whose spikes have been reduced to rounded knobs in order to tone down the element of cruelty) fully express the balanced character of Raphael's art.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (April 1483 – April 1520), better known simply as Raphael, was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period. Raphael was highly admired by his contemporaries, and in 1508 he was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II, and he was to remain in the city serving successive popes for a dozen years until his death. Raphael died on the 6th of April 1520 (on his 37th birthday) and was buried the next day in the Pantheon. His funeral was very well attended attracting large crowds. Vasari says that Raphael's early death 'plunged into grief the entire papal court', and for centuries he was considered as the greatest painter who expressed the basic doctrines of the Christian Church through figures that have a physical beauty worthy of the antique.

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