This work may have been painted in Bologna after the artist fled from Rome. Saint Catherine is identified by the wheel upon which she was tortured before being miraculously saved. The figure in the foreground may be the hermit who converted her. After her conversion she dreamt that the infant Jesus placed a ring on her finger in a 'mystic marriage'. The ring with its blue stone is in the centre of the painting.
Dana Brenan: Saint Catherine of Alexandria was a young woman who was born at the beginning of the fourth century in Alexandria. She was of noble parents – very well educated – and while a young woman converted, in secret, to Christianity. In the time of Macencius – he was persecuting Christians – and even though Catherine could have remained silent, she refused and she went to the emperor in public and started arguing and debating with him about his behaviour and how wrong it was – that Christianity was the right way to go. The emperor was angry with her about this, but he was intrigued by her intellect and also by her beauty and determined to make her his mistress. But to do so he had to convert her back to his beliefs, and so he arranged for 50 philosophers to come to Alexandria and to debate with her and to convince her that she was wrong. At the end of hours of debate, she had converted them back to Christianity.
The emperor was so angry with this, but he was determined to make her his mistress, and it was at this point that she informed him that not only had she taken a pledge to remain a virgin, but that she had had a dream and in that dream she had married Christ and it was at this point that the emperor just lost everything – he just became so angry, he decided that she had to die. And so he had his carpenters build four wheels that would spin in different directions, and they had iron spikes and big swords hanging from them and her body was to be sandwiched between these spinning wheels and so torn apart.
Miranda Hinkley: And so hence the wheel that she’s often depicted with in many paintings in the Gallery, like this one here, ‘The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine’ by Parmigianino, she’s depicted with a large wheel with spikes coming out.
Dana Brenan: There’s always a wheel with her – that’s how you identify her, is by her wheel. This one is particularly impressive because it’s so large and because you can actually see the big iron spikes sticking out of it. When Catherine saw the device, she was obviously afraid, but she prayed to God and God answered her prayers and had the device torn apart, and as the bits flew into the crowd it killed thousands of pagans. The emperor saw this but was not deterred – he was determined that she was going to die and so ordered her executed. And as his soldiers dragged her away to be beheaded, she heard a voice from heaven and it was Christ speaking to her and confirming her vision, that she was his bride and that a seat was next to him in heaven waiting for her. And so she went to her death willingly and passively and her example of the way she lived her life, and the way she used her intellect in debate has been an example to women for nearly 2000 years.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirteen, November 2007