Artemisia Gentileschi paints herself in the guise of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian saint martyred in the early 4th century. She leans on a broken wheel studded with iron spikes, the instrument of Catherine’s torture and the saint’s standard attribute. Her right hand, delicately holding a martyr’s palm between thumb and forefinger, is brought to her chest.
The painting dates from Artemisia’s period of activity in Florence, where she moved in 1612 following her rape by Agostino Tassi and the infamous trial that ensued. Saint Catherine’s physiognomy, head, and three-quarter pose are all closely related to those in Artemisia’s ‘Self Portrait as a Lute Player’ (about 1615–8) in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, USA, suggesting that this too is a self-portrait of the artist. Her right hand holding the palm frond is identical to that in Artemisia’s ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ (Uffizi Gallery, Florence), a work which probably dates from around the same time.
Artemisia seems to have used her own image frequently in works painted during her Florentine sojourn – a number of Artemisia’s self-portraits are recorded in 17th-century inventories, though not all of these have been identified. Keen to promote her talent in Florence, a city to which she had newly arrived, Artemisia may have painted such works in a conscious act of self-promotion – the existence of these images certainly seems to suggest there was demand for them among her patrons.