Hagia Aekatarina is a Greek phrase, literally translated as “holy, ever pure one, Catherine”. This icon is painted on a birch wood panel, measuring 18″ wide and 30″ high that has been prepared with many coats of gesso (a white paste made of calcium carbonate and glue). While principal elements of an icon must always remain unchanged, the iconographer may add secondary elements, often to recognize the recipient, donor, or allusions to relevant and appropriate events or places. This icon was written as a Presentation gift from Trinity Iconography Institute members and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, to Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, a priest of this Diocese and Bishop of Nevada, upon her election as Presiding Bishop of the worldwide Episcopal Church, in 2006.
THE ICON TELLS THE STORY
St. Catherine of Alexandria is revered as a very learned person, a virgin and martyr born of a noble (perhaps Greek) family. Although some accounts attribute to her the title Princess, there appears to be no historical, factual data to support this claim to Royalty. In fact, little of anything factual exists with respect to her life or death; she does not appear in any written history prior to the ninth century of the Common Era (C.E.). Legend has it that Catherine was born in Egypt in the latter part of the third century C.E. Eusebius, sometimes referred to as the father of Church historians and Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, records her death date as 305 C.E. in the city of Alexandria when she was approximately 18 years old. The Eastern Church celebrates her feast day on November 24 (Slavic) or November 25 (Greek). In 1969 the Roman church expunged her feast day from the Western Calendar.
It is believed that Catherine was a great beauty and very learned. The pagan Emperor Maximinus (reigned 305 – 315 C.E.) propositioned Catherine and, in refusing his advances and offer of marriage, she angered him and was called before a tribunal. At her trial Catherine upbraided the Maximinus for his torturing and slaughtering of Christians. She is said to have preached to him to give up his worship of false gods. Maximinus brought in 50 wise (pagan) scholars to refute her arguments but instead, her rhetoric persuaded the scholars to accept Christianity. In his outrage, the emperor had all the scholars executed and sentenced Catherine to death on the spiked wheel.
There are at least two versions of her martyrdom. In the Eastern Church, it is said she (or a ministering angel) miraculously broke the spiked wheel—the intended instrument of her torture. Flying pieces of it were said to have killed some of her putative executioners. Many witnesses to this miracle (including the Empress Augusta and 200 soldiers) immediately professed their belief in Christ and were executed. One legend states that when Catherine was beheaded with an axe (or sword), that milk flowed from her veins.
The Western Church attributes her death to her being broken on the spiked wheel (hence, a “Catherine wheel” —a popular firework in Europe). In the visual art of the West, St. Catherine is often depicted with a book (wisdom), a martyr’s crown, a broken wheel and an axe or sword—the latter three items referring to the manner of her death. One legend has it that angels carried St. Catherine’s body to Mount Sinai. Another legend has it that after her death, Catherine was transported bodily to heaven and betrothed to Jesus Christ, by action of the Virgin Mary. In the sixth (or eighth) century C.E. Catherine’s body (or head and left hand according to other legends) was found on Mt. Sinai. The relics were taken to the Byzantine Holy Monastery of the Transfiguration, built by order of Emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565 C.E.) on the site of Moses’ metamorphosis (transfiguration). Because of the monastery’s close association with her bodily relics, it is now referred to simply as “St. Catherine’s” Monastery.
There is an ancient Irish Gaelic poem in which Catherine is titled “Star of the World”; she is the patron saint of virgins, nuns, students, philosophers, orators, nurses, saddlers, rope-makers, librarians, lawyers, secretaries, spinsters, potters, mechanics and wheelwrights. She is also extremely popular in France (and is patroness of the University of Paris) and was one of the saints who spoke to St. Jeanne d’ Arc, giving her instructions, prayer support and help. St. Catherine is also patroness of Kappa Gamma Pi, the Roman Catholic Women’s Honor Society.
THE ICON’S PROTOTYPE
Our iconographers are required by the Byzantine tradition, under whose Canons we have agreed to work, to always use an existing, Orthodox Church-approved prototype. There were many images of Holy Catherine from which to choose; this icon faithfully re-presents and combines elements of three originals from the 13th and 17th centuries C.E. now in St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.
THE SYMBOLISM IN THE ICON
We chose to include symbols of the Saint’s and presiding bishop’s many major attributes: books (for their wisdom and scholarship), and an ink-horn and quill pen (as symbols of teaching and writing). A cartographer’s divider, armillary planisphere and astrolabe — ancient instruments used to navigate and determine altitude, allude to essential tools for a pilot — as our Presiding Bishop is a pilot and now also the Chief Navigator of the Church.
The standing, full-frontal figure of the Saint comes from the two earliest (13th century) Sinai presentations of her. The clothing is taken from a third icon—a reclining image of St. Catherine by Victor of Crete (17th century). St. Catherine is shown standing in a stone niche, on a carpet, on a floor of lapis lazuli (the gemstone having been ground into a medium to make paint). The Saint holds a martyr’s cross, copied from the Royal Doors of the Basilica of St. Justinian in St. Catherine’s, Sinai. Her bejeweled crown and the cross surmounting it (all crafted of 23-carat white gold) symbolize her dual royal and martyr status.
St. Catherine wears a chiton, the court dress of Byzantium; it is the blood-red color of a martyr. Over her chiton she wears a royal purple velvet chlamys, or mantle. The chlamys is lavishly embroidered in gold thread, which, when closed, displays the double-headed, crowned eagle of Byzantium. A jeweled clasp secures her chlamys. Catherine’s chiton is decorated with clavi—lavish areas of diapered gold and with large numbers of pearls and gems. Her loros, similar to a priest’s stole, extends around her back and drapes over her left arm.
The niche archway and cross-decorated plinth are architectural features copied from the Chapel of St. Tryphon in the St. Catherine Monastery at Mt. Sinai. Shown as carved into the stone arch are stylized scallop shells. A Primatial staff and the Episcopal Church escutcheon surmounted by a bishop’s mitre, denote Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s role as its primate. The logo of Oregon’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and a pastoral crozier, reference the diocese of the Presiding Bishop’s ordination and first years as a priest in Oregon. From the Saint emanates an internal, spiritual glow over the whole niche. Pink pearls surround the Saint’s nimbus or halo, while the floral motifs of gold pastiglia echo those of her chlamys.
The desk beside the Saint is decorated with stylized scallop shell motifs found on the iconostasis (icon screen) in the Chapel of St. Marina, Sinai. Ocean pearls and scallop shells throughout this icon, representing the genus phylum mollusca, also allude to the Presiding Bishop’s former professional life as an oceanographer. Scallop shells were also worn by pilgrims in Europe, either in their hat or around their neck, as symbols of their pilgrimage. True to the Orthodox tradition, this icon does not show any of the instruments of the Saint’s torture and death.
Since the end of the iconoclastic period, iconographers are required by edicts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787 C.E.) to show the name of the subject of an icon. Because of the many variants of this Saint’s name and in recognition of that which is used by Presiding Bishop Katharine, we have chosen to write it in paleographic Greek.
SYMBOLISM OF GOLD AND GEMSTONES
Pure (23-carat) yellow gold used throughout the icon and on clothing signifies Heavenly light. In all, there are 94 gemstones and pearls embellishing this icon and they are all highly symbolic. The brow-band of the Crown has 12 black or pavonine pearls representing the Apostles. Four exquisite, un-drilled, perfectly round, matched white pearls appended to the crown points represent the four Gospel writers. In the center panel of the white-gold crown is an oval amethyst, with smaller ones on the sides, alluding to the Saint’s legendary royal status. The amethysts’ purple also refers to the fact that in the early Christian Church, members of cadet branches of royal or princely families were often made primates of a church or monastery. Two black pearls, amid four white Baroque pearls on the crown’s side panels represent the dual nature of Christ. Elsewhere, pink and white pearls denote the Saint’s purity and virtue, while also alluding to their source, the oceans—the study of which was our Presiding Bishop’s early professional life’s work.
The clasp fastening the Saint’s chlamys contains an iolite gem and four sea-green jade stones. Sea-green jade is a further reference to the oceans. Early Scandinavian sailors were said to have used an iolite gem to refract light, as a navigational aid. The iolite thus recalls St. Catherine’s guiding others to Christ and also foreshadows that same role that a presiding bishop must fulfill in the Church. Reference to the iolite’s provenance also reflects the Scandinavian origin of our presiding bishop’s patron, St. Katharine of Vadstena.
Red garnets set into the Martyr’s Cross, which the Saint holds in her right hand, symbolize the Sacred Blood of Christ and blood of the Saint’s own martyrdom. Lapis lazuli, when used in an icon always symbolizes the floor of Heaven. Turquoise stones, which Native Americans use to symbolize heaven and the sky, decorate the equatorial band of the armillary planisphere.
ST. KATHARINE OF VADSTENA (c1331-1381)
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is named after the 14-century C.E. Swedish saint, the daughter of St. Bridget of Sweden [also Briggitta] – (1303-1373 C.E.) and her husband Ulf Gudmarsson, both of whom were active in the Swedish Royal Court. During their lifetimes, all of Scandinavia was united under the Crown of Sweden. In 1341 Bridget and Ulf went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Typical of pilgrims of that time, they would have worn the scallop shell badge signifying their pilgrimage and then would have left their shell badges at the cathedral there. On their return journey, Ulf became ill and Bridget received a vision to preach the Word of God; shortly after their return to Sweden, Ulf died and Bridget founded the Religious Order of St. Bridget (the Briggittines) housed in Vadstena, on an estate granted to her by the King of Sweden.
While visiting Rome, St. Bridget was very active in trying to bring the competing popes of that time to a resolution of their conflict; and also with urging the Swedish king to respect the Word of God. Bridget’s daughter, Katharine, also a devoted member of that Order, succeeded her mother as superior general in 1373. St. Katharine’s Feast Day is March 24. Because St. Katharine of Vadstena was canonized by the Western Church after the Great Schism in 1054 C.E. (between the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire and Christianity), we had to revert to St. Katharine’s namesake and martyr in Sinai for the prototype from which to create this icon.
On the reverse of this icon and placed within the arms of a 12th century cross, copied from a church door in Christiansand, Norway (then part of Sweden), are a dedicatory carta and several prayers. Icons are always written anonymously, the iconographers whose hands worked on this icon are identified by first name only, as are those who contributed gems, pearls and gold. We ask your prayers for our institute’s work, mission and ministry.
ST. CATHERINE’S MONASTERY, SINAI
The Holy Monastery of the Transfiguration was built at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Egypt by order of the Roman Emperor Justinian, between 527 and 565 C.E. It encloses the legendary site where Moses saw the Burning Bush; where he was transfigured and received the Tablets of the Law. It is now most often referred to by its more familiar name “St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.” This name came about because the monastery is said to contain the remains of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Reputed to be the oldest continuously functioning Christian monastery, it houses many valuable works of art, codices and manuscripts (its collection is second only to the Vatican Library, in Rome). The monastery also contains probably the world’s finest, largest and oldest collection of icons, including the three prototypes of St. Catherine from which this icon is re-created. The monastery is a very popular site of pilgrimage for all Christians.
Copyright of Hagia Aekaterina Eikon is the property of the Trinity Iconography Institute.