School of Fiesole, Martyrdom of St. Catherine, undated_ISANG Collection

- Saint Catherine of Alexandria is a Christian saint and virgin, martyred in the early 4th century at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius. She was both a princess and a noted scholar, who became a Christian around the age of fourteen, and converted hundreds of people to Christianity. She was martyred around the age of 18, condemned to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but, at her touch, it shattered. Maxentius finally had her beheaded.
Catherine is very frequently depicted in art, especially in the late Middle Ages. She can usually be easily recognised as she is richly dressed and crowned, as befits her rank as a princess, with unbound hair as she is unmarried. She is often depicted with a wheel, martyr’s palm or sword as her attributes.
In this painting by the School of Fiesole (generally associated with Fra Angelico who was at the convent of Fiesole from 1418 - 1436), the moment of Saint Catherine’s beheading is depicted as Maxentius looks on. Her decapitated head is surrounded by the classic iconography of a halo, indicating saintliness, while her headless body kneels on the ground in prayer. Decapitation is a powerful symbol in art history, signifying the precise separation between body and mind: in it you can see the detachment from matters of the spirit that remains alive even after death. This is further depicted by the image of her intact body above the scene, a reference to the myth that angels carried her corpse to Mount Sinai.