Painted and gilded linden wood
Gift of Ethel Morrison Van Derlip in memory of her mother, Julia Kellogg Morrison
The details of the legend illustrate how fragments of historical fact became distorted and were combined over hundreds of years, when most
people learned stories by hearing them, not by reading them. Catherine, if she existed, may have been the daughter of a nobleman but
not of a king, since Alexandria was under Roman rule in 300 A.D. Although Maxentius was indeed the current Roman emperor (reigned
306-312 A.D.) with authority over the African provinces, he followed a policy of tolerance towards Christians. There is no record that
he put his wife to death. His army was defeated by the forces of the future emperor Constantine at the battle of Milvan bridge (28
October 312) and along with thousands of his troops Maxentius drowned in the Tiber River.
Many elements of the Saint Catherine legend are similar to those of the life of an ancient philosopher named Hypatia (high-PAY-shuh).
Around 300 AD, Alexandria, Egypt, was the Western world's intellectual, scientific, and philosophic center. It was also the site of
tremendous turmoil as Christianity gained political and intellectual power. Although Hypatia taught so-called pagan philosophies in
Alexandria, she was given special treatment by Christian leaders in the city. She died in 415, evidently murdered by a group of fanatical
Whatever her origins, Saint Catherine of Alexandria was one of the most popular Christian saints in Europe during the later Middle
Ages. Jacobus de Voragine (ja-KOH-bus duh ve-RAJ-i-nee) popularized the story of her martyrdom in his well-known collection of saints'
lives, called The Golden Legend. She was the patron saint of young girls, students, clergy, philosophers, and craftspeople, such as
wheelwrights, spinners, and millers, whose work centered on the wheel. Perhaps because of her association with Hypatia, the Catholic
Church considered Catherine's history unreliable and removed her from its calendar of saints in 1969.
During the 14th century, artists regularly included Saint Catherine in large-scale altarpieces. Rows of standing saints typically
flanked a central figure of Christ or the Virgin Mary. These sculptures were used to educate the illiterate about Christian theology
and to inspire devotion.
Another example of a linden wood scuplture
Follower of Hans Klocker
1495 - 1510
polychromed and gilt wood
The John R. Van Derlip Fund
Altarpiece saints were often carved from linden wood, also known as limewood, which grew in the dense forests of southern Germany and Austria.
Sculptors prized the expensive linden wood because its uniform grain enabled them to carve out complex drapery patterns without cracking
the wood. People believed that linden wood had magical qualities, and its leaves, seeds, and flowers were used in medicines. Images were
thought to be more powerful when carved from this magical wood.
Detail of Maxentius from the base of Saint Catherine of Alexandria's feet
Saint Catherine of Alexandria
This 15th-century linden wood sculpture from Austria probably stood in a large elevated altarpiece. For this reason, Catherine is
looking down at the viewer. The back of the sculpture is hollowed out, indicating that only the front was meant to be seen. Catherine
is depicted as a graceful young woman. She stands tall on the back of a small prone figure of Maxentius, showing the triumph of faith
over evil. Her crown indicates her royal status. Uncharacteristically, she is not accompanied by her customary
especially a spiked wheel, a martyr's palm, and a wedding ring.
Catherine is represented not as a 4th century Egyptian woman, but as an aristocratic woman living in 15th century Austria. Catherine, renowned
for her beauty, has long, wavy hair. Her stocky body and her idealized facial features - small delicate red mouth, small sharp chin, long
narrow nose, broad cheeks, and high forehead - are typical of Austrian and German Gothic representations of female saints. Traces of paint
indicate that her face was painted creamy white. She wears a fashionable 15th-century ensemble of a high-waisted gown, loose outer cloak,
and pointed shoes. Traces of color show that her cloak was once
and the lining was painted blue. The red patches are remnants of the glue used to attach the
Detail of folds from Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Catherine delicately lifts the hem of her cape as she steps over Maxentius. The folds of her voluminous drapery are crinkled and brittle. Because
of these sharp, angular folds, the late Gothic manner in which she is carved is called the "hard style."