The Story of St. Catherine

St. Catherine of Alexandria, according to legend, started out as the daughter of a 4th-century governor of the Mediterranean city. Converted by a monk in an ecstatic, mystical rite, she made a reputation, and a powerful enemy, for herself by converting the wife of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius. For her efforts, she was ultimately condemned to death on the wheel, but when she was strapped down, it broke (hence her frequent depiction with a broken wheel), and she had to be beheaded instead. Her intact remains were discovered rather mysteriously several centuries later to the south of the monastery on the summit of what is now named Mount St. Catherine. You can climb the mountain and still see the indent where her body was found.

The Catherine Wheel

A popular attraction, the Catherine Wheel, started out as a plain wooden-cart wheel that was put to ingenious use in a particularly nasty method of execution. The condemned was strapped to the wheel, and a bar was inserted between the spokes. As the wheel was turned, the changing angle of the lever snapped the arm and leg bones. The next step was to weave the mangled limbs of the still-living victim through the spokes and hoist the wheel up somewhere prominent so that the slow death that ensued could be enjoyed by all. It became known as the Catherine Wheel after St. Catherine of Alexandria apparently outdid the wheel to which she was strapped for execution, with the spokes breaking instead of her bones. Though she was subsequently beheaded, her short-lived triumph is still celebrated by children in Europe with a whirling shower of sparks.

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