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Two brides for one groom: the Mystery of the picturesque plot of the mystical betrothal of Saint Catherine

Among the works of masters of the Renaissance and later periods of the history of painting, there are often those that depict the “mystical betrothal of Saint Catherine”. At the same time, the essence of what is happening may seem vague – after all, the engagement in the usual modern understanding of the canvas does not occur. It turns out that the brides in these paintings could be two different women, but the groom – always one.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria lived in Egypt in the third century ad. Before the adoption of Christianity, she was named Dorothea and was the daughter of the ruler of Alexandria. The girl was famous for her extraordinary beauty, wisdom, and spiritual qualities, and was, of course, an enviable bride, but as a bridegroom she wanted only the most worthy – the one who would surpass her in everything. Then Catherine’s mother took her to an old hermit who was performing prayers in a cave near the city. He told the girl that he knew someone who was better than her in everything.
The image of Christ made a strong impression on the girl, and soon she had a vision: she found herself in front of the Virgin Mary with the baby, but he refused to look at Catherine, because she was ugly, poor and mad, because she was not marked by the Holy Spirit. Then the girl asked the elder to perform the rite of baptism over her and began to pray. A new vision appeared before her of the virgin and child, who called Catherine the bride and put a ring on her finger.
After a while, the Emperor Maximinus arrived in Alexandria. Catherine went to the Governor’s Palace to persuade him to renounce the worship of pagan gods and accept the Christian faith. Maximin called the best scientists to force the girl to renounce Christianity. But after a conversation with the girl, the sages began to convert to her faith, for which the angry Emperor ordered to burn all at the stake. The girl was ordered to be thrown into prison, for her the Emperor invented the wheel torture, and all who followed the girl to the new religion, he prepared the death penalty, including his wife. According to legend, the wheel was destroyed by an angel who descended to earth. At the behest of the Emperor, Catherine was beheaded with a sword, thus suffering a Martyr’s death at the age of eighteen.

Catherine of Alexandria was canonized-this happened before the division of the churches, and therefore the Saint is revered by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Her name was given to the order of the Russian Empire, which was established under Peter I. the first lady awarded the order was the wife of Peter I, Catherine, and later it was awarded to Grand duchesses and princesses, it was a symbol of belonging to the highest circles of society.
But Christian history has also known another Catherine, a Saint of the Catholic Church, and she, too, was Christ’s bride, depicted in paintings and icons. She was born in the Italian city of Siena in the middle of the XIV century.
Catherine received her name in honor of the same Saint from Alexandria, and in her life focused on her. At the age of seven, she took the so-called vow of virginity. The girl’s family was initially opposed to her devoting herself to Christ, and they tried to marry her off and put her to work around the house to break her will. But one day, when they saw a dove descend from heaven on her head during prayer, they considered it a sign from above and stopped resisting Catherine’s choice. The girl entered the path of monastic service.
Since childhood, she had had visions. During one of them, Saint Dominic appeared to Catherine, who handed the girl a white Lily – it burned, but did not burn, like a burning Bush from a biblical story.
In 1367, when the carnival was held in Siena, Catherine gave herself up to prayer, and, following the example of the Saint from Alexandria, asked Christ to ” marry her in faith.” Then he and the Holy virgin went to her house, and, as in the case of Catherine of Alexandria, the ceremony of betrothal took place. The bride also wore a ring on her finger, which she wore for the rest of her life, and to all but Catherine herself it was invisible.
The house on Fontebranda street – the one where the ceremony was performed, has since been revered by the faithful, during the carnival, passing by it, participants remove their masks. The inscription on the building reads: “this is the home of Catherine, the bride of Christ.”
Saint Catherine belonged to the order of the Dominicans, professed asceticism, devoting herself to works of charity. A community began to form around her, the number of followers grew, and Catherine became the first woman to preach in the Church. Catherine was instrumental in bringing the papal residence back from Avignon to Rome. The correspondence and literary heritage of the bride of Christ had a great influence on the religious policy of the time. Moreover, continuing the tradition of mystical visions, she allegedly wrote a number of her works in a state of trance, ecstasy, recording God’s words in spite of herself.
Catherine of Siena led an extremely ascetic life, she did not eat meat and generally ate very sparingly, wearing only clothes all year, giving everything to the poor and destitute. She died, apparently, from exhaustion of physical and mental strength. This happened when she was thirty-three years old – the same age that Christ lived on earth.

What is interesting about the stories of the two Catharines is that both of them are recognized as real, historical figures. And if the master’s goal in iconography was to capture images of saints to glorify their righteous life and deeds in the name of the Church, the artists drew inspiration from the very plot of the betrothal to Christ. Most often, the Savior was depicted as an infant in the arms of the mother of God – probably in order to emphasize the spiritual extra-gender nature of the betrothal.

Both Catherine of Alexandria and Catherine of Siena could appear on the canvases of artists – you can determine which of them appears as a participant in the mystical betrothal by individual attributes. In General, more often depicted the great Martyr Catherine, a much smaller number of paintings dedicated to the Saint of Siena. But the artist Ambrogio Borgognone went a little further than all his colleagues and wrote the betrothal of Catherine to these two saints at once.

Catherine of Alexandria is usually depicted in a crown, sometimes in an ermine mantle-these are signs of her Royal origin. Often the picture shows a wheel, a sword, and the Saint herself is dressed in red clothes-this color symbolizes martyrdom.

Catherine of Siena is depicted in a monastic cassock, with a Lily. The number of figures that make up the composition of the work varied – from a minimum of three participants in the sacrament to several dozen – including other saints, angels, and donators who paid for the artist’s work.

The mystical betrothal of Saint Catherine is a very popular subject among Renaissance artists. The paintings that came out of the workshops reflected not only the history itself, but also the features of the era in which they were created. While conforming to the canons within which the masters worked, these works, however, make later generations of art connoisseurs reflect. For example, the tradition of depicting Catherine with a rounded belly, with obvious signs of pregnancy, at first throws into confusion – because both Catherine vowed celibacy and could not have signs of imminent motherhood.

But the explanation is to be found in the traditions of the Renaissance, when the main purpose of women was declared to be the birth of children, and this gave rise to a kind of standard of beauty for artists, who sometimes hypertrophied praised this ability as an integral part of the woman’s image.

Often, when looking at one of these “engagements”, you can see signs of the time and place where the picture was created, for example, the event taking place on the canvas of Paolo Veronese resembles a fun Venetian ball rather than a quiet secret ceremony.

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