off with her head

My trip to Mallorca earlier in the year provided me with opportunities to capture a number of cool or odd images. Some of you might remember my blog post called Gothic Sacraments, which had photographs from the astounding Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in the Catedral de Mallorca. One of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals I’ve ever visited.

Another section of the Cathedral that fascinated me was the Chapel of Saint Jerome, which contained several paintings. A set of two were particularly striking.

Here’s the bottom image:

St. Catherine - headless

This is Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a famous Catholic martyr. In typical fashion she refused to recant her faith and was eventually decapitated for her obstinacy. She’s one of the many virgin saints that the Catholic Church was keen to promote as role models of evangelical forbearance.

The grotesque details in this painting captured my attention: the blood spurting from body and neck, and Catherine holding up her serene, severed head like a trophy.

I have a couple of vivid memories as a child of being horrified by some of the images of suffering and martyrdom that littered the convent and church I attended. Catholics certainly have a flair for bloody theatre. It also proves that religion has always been aware of the importance of the visual image to instil devotion. Saying your decades of the rosary is one thing, but doing it while staring at icons of those who suffered valiantly for their religious beliefs really drums the message in.

And who are you to complain about your lot when you have fine examples of those who suffered far worse trials?

Here are the two images together. They comprise a sort of Before and After set of Saint Catherine.

St Catherine - before and after

The iconography of pre-martyr Catherine really caught my eye. In particular I liked the quill and the sword, and initially I wondered was she some kind of scholar/fighter. The quill indeed denotes learning – Catherine was highly educated, and through her clever arguments was able to convert pagan philosophers sent to dissuade her to the new religion. They were all killed for that act of apostasy, however.

The sword probably stands for her method of death, although it might indicate her keen intellect as well. The wheel in the background is the torture device they had planned to use on her to force her to recant. It broke before they could tie her to it. This is how ‘Catherine Wheel’ fireworks got their name, by the way.

The artistry of both paintings is wonderful. The top picture, which shows Catherine haloed and wearing a dynamically-flapping scarlet cape makes her a superhero for the medieval era.

It’s a pity Catherine’s superpowers didn’t extend to immunity to decapitation.