Thursday, May 8, 2008


Taking a medieval art class on "Pilgrimage and the Cult of Saints" seemed like a good opportunity to learn about my (sort of) namesake, St Catherine. There are actually two, St Catherine of Sienna having been named after St Catherine of Alexandria. I was more interested in St Catherine of Alexandria, not only for being the "original," but because I knew there was a recent reincarnation of her "cult" in the haute-couture houses of 20th century Paris. This cult was the subject of a Hollywood film staring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward called A New Kind of Love. Joanne Woodward plays Sam, a hard-working, short-haired career girl who gets mistaken for a man by Paul Newman's character, Steve. Sam works at a New York department store and is in Paris to attend the fashion shows, where she gets roped into the St Catherine's day festivities.
St Catherine is a patron saint of unmarried women, so that on her feast day, November 25th, couture houses gave lavish parties for all their unmarried models and salesgirls. Famous singers (in this case Maurice Chevalier in a cameo role) entertained and handed out special hats to the Catherinettes, those women who were at least 25 and still unwed. Not only is my first name Katharine, but this year (today in fact) I'm turning 25, and naturally I'm not married. So basically I've just been working on the history of myself.

After drinking and dancing at these parties, the Catherinettes marched to St Catherine’s shrine—actually just a statue on a street corner—left a bouquet of flowers, and asked for her to help them find husbands. Even though Sam claims to be uninterested in marriage, she drunkenly climbs the ladder to Catherine’s statue, which is on a building’s second-floor fa├žade, and admits her private yearning for a husband. She then has a vision in which Catherine tells her to (what else?) go to Elizabeth Arden.

I couldn't exactly write my medieval-art seminar paper on a 1963 Hollywood film, but I was interested in how St Catherine, a virgin martyr who never married herself, came to be seen as a good person to turn to when you want to catch a husband. It turns out that unmarried women began visiting St Catherine shrines to ask for husband-hunting help since the 14th century. The explanation seems to be that around that time, Catherine became celebrated for her mystical marriage to Christ. Although this mystical marriage was usually depicted between the saint and a baby Jesus on Mary's lap, it was sometimes shown with Mary officiating at the marriage of St Catherine to a very handsome adult Christ. Historians figure that medieval women considered Christ the ultimate husband (always turns the other cheek, etc.) and since St Catherine was the paragon who got this heavenly spouse, she became the premiere saint of unmarried women.

So, I looked at a series of images of St Catherine and scenes from her life to trace how these changes affected the visual culture. This first one is called a vita icon, a portrait of the saint surrounded with narrative scenes. What interested me was the extent to which the saint was portrayed as a model of masculine behavior. Catherine was famous for being intelligent, eloquent, and highly educated in theology and the classics, and this icon emphasizes her ability to preach, convert pagans, and verbally defend her faith, just like any male apostle or bishop.

This altarpiece made a good transition. It retains this emphasis on Catherine's "masculine" behavior but includes the first known visual representation of her mystical marriage to Christ. This narrative takes place in the first four scenes on the upper-left, and depicts Catherine visiting a hermit to ask whom she should marry. He gives her an icon of the Virgin and Child and tells her to pray to them. They appear to the saint in a vision, and Mary tells Jesus to look on his new bride, but he refuses to do so. Catherine goes back to the hermit to be baptized, and in the next scene Mary weds her to the baby Jesus.

In the kind of awesome meta-move that academics just love, this next panel is a devotional image of St Catherine's mystical marriage to a handsome adult Christ that includes a donor portrait of the Franciscan nun who commissioned it. In other words, the nun (on the lower right) commissioned this panel painting so that she could use it as a devotional image that would aid her prayers for her own mystical marriage to Christ, and the nun's practice is a perfect imitation of what Catherine was depicted doing in the earlier altarpiece. Considering how sexualized the rhetoric around these "mystical" marriages got, it would be fun to see this kind of image as medieval nuns' porn, but do I really want to see my "patron" saint has a tool for sexual fantasy?


Anonymous said...

Wow -- I had no idea that the "Bride of Christ" concept got so -- how should we say -- operationalized.

-- Jack

Leslie Bonnell said...

Hi Katherine,

I am about to host a Catherinettes millinery class in my sewing studio here in Austin, TX. May I have permission to post a link to your site to my students? I am a huge fan of that movie, the story of St. Catherine and now of your blog!

Please let me know and thanks for your consideration.

Leslie Bonnell

Ellen Christine Millinery said...

thanks for doing the research! As a milliner, and as a member of the Milliners Guild, based in NYC, I am always looking for coverage for St. Cat's Day. Yes, we celebrate it, but not according to the rules and regs of ritual. We , as a group, married, unmarried, whatever, have adopted the celebration for another blatant excuse to be footloose and fancy free for an evening. In our hats.
We thank Paris for continuing the tradition for decades, and we have fun with it our own way.
Crown St. Catherine, wish for a hub, or just have fun with your friends, it's a fun day to celebrate hats.