history & philosophy · spinning · textiles as fine arts

Art & Craft: Saint Catherine’s Wheel

Who made it: Anonymous. Like most medieval art, there is no signature or attribution on this 12th-13th-century fresco from Cathedral of Notre Dame, Le Puy-en-Velay, France.

Why I love it: Saint Catherine is the patron saint of scholars, spinners, and unmarried women. According to legend, she was a bold and effective apologist for Christianity:

Of noble birth and learned in the sciences, when only eighteen years old, Catherine presented herself to the Emperor Maximinus who was violently persecuting the Christians, upbraided him for his cruelty and endeavoured to prove how iniquitous was the worship of false gods. Astounded at the young girl’s audacity, but incompetent to vie with her in point of learning the tyrant detained her in his palace and summoned numerous scholars whom he commanded to use all their skill in specious reasoning that thereby Catherine might be led to apostatize. But she emerged from the debate victorious. Several of her adversaries, conquered by her eloquence, declared themselves Christians and were at once put to death.


Following Catherine’s victory over the pagan philosophers, Maximinus ordered Catherine be tortured on a spiked wheel. As soon as she was placed on the wheel, however, the cruel instrument broke, and the Emperor resorted to beheading her. The fresco here imagines Catherine gracefully woven into the device that was meant to torture her, looking toward heaven.

Because God made her a “master of wheels,” the medieval imagination–always boldly associative–made her patron of all crafts that work with wheels, including those who use spinning wheels. Her youth and celibacy made her the patron of unmarried women (especially those who reached the age of 25 without marrying), and female scholars.

November 25 is Saint Catherine’s Day, and each year I resolve to celebrate it with Cattern Cakes or Catherine wheels, but Thanksgiving travel usually interferes. This year, I’m a few days late, but still want to celebrate the legend of a skilled, courageous woman who trusted in her God more than in the power of man.


Image Source: 12th-13th-century fresco, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Le Puy-en-Velay, France. Read more about this image here.

Second image source here.

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