The elderly mother of a close friend sends me nameday good wishes every 25th November, and I thank her for her attentiveness.
My mother once told me which Saint Catherine I had been dedicated to at birth, but I have forgotten. I never gave it much thought until, relatively recently, I realised that something did not quite make sense in this vague recollection. We weren’t Catholics and I was not christened as a child. So this was either a made-up childhood memory, a misunderstanding on my part, or a rare moment of religious piety in my mother’s firmly pantheistic spirituality. I cannot therefore imagine any circumstance in which I would have been in any way dedicated to a Church saint.
I find the character of Saint Catherine of Siena, whose feast falls in April, more appealing: a Doctor of the Church, an educated woman whose opinion was sought and respected by high (male) prelates at a time when most women became wives, nuns or whores with little or no choice afforded them in the matter. The few paintings of her, however – and I think of Tiepolo’s in particular – I find somewhat dull, if not sad: an ill-looking Dominican nun with eyes turned upwards and a despairing, long-suffering expression.
Paintings of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, on the other hand, are more suggestive and inspiring. My absolute favourite among them is by Il Pinturicchio, currently in storage at London’s National Gallery. A beautiful woman with a fresh complexion, wearing a dress of a stunning blue, and although she is holding a sword above a wheel – symbols of her gruesome martyrdom – in her right hand, there is a large leatherbound book with two clasps in her left. She looks down at the Donor who no doubt paid handsomely to be painted beside her in the Renaissance precursor to photobombing. There is a polite half-smile on her lips and an expression of mild benevolence on her face, although I sense a hint, a faint shade of weariness verging on boredom.
Another one, she seems to think.
The Donor, whoever he might be, is kneeling, his back very straight, like a little boy who knows he has been good and is claiming his reward with self-assurance. His hands, joined in prayer, are held forward to make room for the well-fed belly we glimpse under his severe robe. Interestingly, he stares straight ahead and not up at the holy woman whose blessing and intercession he presumably seeks.
Another one who asks, but does not listen, who searches, but does not look.
Catherine’s body is facing us, but not fully. Her right shoulder and hip are slightly further back, as though she is in the process of turning away, while her face is still oriented to her left, her eyes on the Donor standing on his knees, staring straight ahead, in perfect, quasi cardboard cut-out profile.
Another one who will continue heading in the same direction, without looking right or left, no matter what I say.
The folds in the fabric of her blue dress suggest that Catherine’s left knee is raised slightly. Is she lifting her foot to take her first step away from the Donor?
She holds the large, green leatherbound tome in her left hand, its front cover against her, so the man is unable to read the title. The spine, where the title may also be embossed, is concealed under her fiery-red shawl. The top of the book is under her left breast, near her heart.
Another one who would not understand, anyway. Another one in whose hands knowledge may become dangerous.
During some elementary theology meetings I attended, a few years ago, the participants were asked to choose a symbol to represent their faith. I picked the image of a book. Faith goes hand-in-hand with knowledge, I said. Knowledge nourishes faith.
We Christians are not people of the Book, the priest told me, and not just on one occasion. We are people of Faith, he said in a tone that brooked no contradiction.
“À la Sainte-Catherine, tout bois prend racine.” On the Feast of Saint Catherine, all wood takes root. I wish I could remember the name and face of the French teacher who told me this proverb at secondary school. The belief – based on experience, and so knowledge – is that this is the ideal time of year to take cuttings from trees and plant them. The autumn’s weather and temperature fluctuations have settled into a steadier rhythm, the frosts have not taken a hold yet, and, since the tree does not need the energy to produce new leaves or fruits yet, it can nurture and expand its roots. I am sorry I cannot remember which teacher said this to me, because it is one of the lessons that made the deepest and longest-lasting impression on me. The realisation that, in Northern European climates, while the land looks outwardly desolate and bare, deep down, in the darkness, it is busy creating, it is secretly pregnant with all the colours we will see in the spring. A piece of information that fascinates me to this day. The thought of all the miracles and magic that may thrive in a dimension most of us cannot perceive with our five senses. This knowledge gives me faith in many things.
And so as I am disappointed to discover from the National Gallery website that Pinturicchio’s painting is currently not on display, I consider ordering a print for my wall. If I continue to study this Saint Catherine, perhaps she will whisper more stories to me. Perhaps she will tell me what is really in the green leatherbound book she is holding against her heart.
I enjoyed this eloquent and thoughtful piece on this painting and about this Saint….it was intriguing to me to examine this painting with your description, it reminds me very much of my art history lessons. Thank you.
Thank you for taking the time to comment, and for your kind words. I’ve never studied Art History, and I am certain there is an academic somewhere out ther who would be able to explain in welcome detail the symbolism and references in this painting. This is just my gut reaction to it.
I rarely comment, Katia, but always enjoy reading your posts and thoughts on the world. Your descriptions of the paintings of various St Catherines really made me smile. Thank you for sharing all that you do.
I’d love it if you could comment more – I had no idea you read my blog. Thank you for your kind words – your opinion means a lot to me.